AHSNs can add value, supporting health and care systems to identify and adopt innovations, brokering relationships with industry and acting as catalysts for change. By Richard Stubbs
The coronavirus pandemic has meant we have faced - and continue to face - the most difficult period in NHS history. An already stretched workforce has been pushed even further; patient waiting lists have reached unprecedented levels; and too many patients’, loved ones’ and colleagues’ lives have been lost.
Yet around the corner comes the next unprecedented challenge in the shape of the activity backlog. As we prepare our plans to tackle it, we can look back at elements of the transformation of our service over the last 12 months and find some of the seeds of our recovery. We have notably seen a system which has championed innovation and transformation at a pace and scale not previously seen.
This is about much more than the specific technologies that have been deployed over the past year; it is about the innovative culture that was created through the immediacy of the crisis, but which can be sustained and harnessed beyond the pandemic. We will lose the opportunity if we polarise the debate as a straight choice between “back to normal” vs “digitise everything”.
We should review and learn from the changes made, capturing what worked well and what didn’t, retaining those innovations which will continue to offer value into the future. For instance, during the pandemic, England’s 15 Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) supported health and care systems to adopt COVID Oximetry @home, allowing patients with coronavirus symptoms to self-monitor oxygen saturation levels with support from primary care. This enabled better capacity management and improved the patient experience. Importantly, these solutions also have a place in a post-pandemic world, where remote monitoring can continue to relieve pressure on busy services.
Best practice and innovation
Since the outset of the pandemic, AHSNs worked in partnership with their local health and care systems and recovery cells to capture examples of best practice and innovation, rapidly evaluate their potential, and embed their use in trusts or across ICS geographies. We facilitated industry to support the pandemic response, bringing in new solutions or providing much-needed equipment or products. Across the AHSN Network, we also led research projects, capturing learning and best practice at a national level.
In the AHSNs, we bridge the gap between the NHS and industry to facilitate adoption of the best solutions within the health and care system
This work, from across the 15 AHSNs, has been captured in our recently published ‘reset’ report, which aims to learn from the AHSN pandemic experience to offer recommendations for how we can continue to work with health and care leaders, to support them to effect meaningful change and rebuild in the wake of coronavirus.
Our experience, captured in this report, demonstrates the need to work in partnership with industry to bring about change. We must not just think of them as simply suppliers, but also partners able to offer knowledge or alternative approaches. In the AHSNs, we bridge the gap between the NHS and industry to facilitate adoption of the best solutions within the health and care system. Similarly, the rapid uptake of digital health solutions during the pandemic, demonstrated the important role of digital as an enabler in health and social care, and not just a solution or platform. Looking ahead to the future, it’s clear we need to create more opportunities for industry and innovators to support the NHS if we are to build a modern and equitable health and care system.
If we accept that we cannot tackle our greatest challenges simply by working harder; then we must embrace different approaches, adopt innovations, new pathways and digital technologies. While it’s easy to outline an ambition, anyone who’s been involved in innovation within the health and care system knows it is much harder in practice. This is where AHSNs can add value, supporting health and care systems to identify and adopt innovations, brokering relationships with industry and acting as catalysts for change. Working in partnership, we can support the system to reset and recover following the pandemic and realise the long-term vision for a more innovative approach to health and care.
Read our AHSN Network Reset Report Reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic to inform the health and care system of the future: the AHSN Network experience.