In the first of an occasional series, our secret CCIO blogger, aged 39 ¾, shares their personal reflections of the first meeting of the NHS Digital Academy.

Right, off to London for the first three-day residential training of the new NHS Digital Academy. The Digital Academy, not to be confused with the O2 Academy in Brixton, is the new blue-chip training initiative for NHS digital leaders.

It was set up in response to Professor Robert Wachter’s 2016 report Making IT Work, and the big digital cheeses at NHS England are terribly excited by the whole thing.  More on how excited later.

Imperial College London, the University of Edinburgh and Harvard Medical are being paid a cool £4 million to provide training to 300 current and future NHS digital leaders over the next three years. 

The Academy is being led by Rachel Dunscombe, who combines the role with being group CIO at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust.

There was a whole selection process you had to go through, with personal statements and the like, almost like applying for medical school again.  But taking part is pretty much mandatory for folks from Global Digital Exemplars, and they are particularly keen on CCIOs taking part.

Like I said, it is high profile, promised to be interesting and I was looking forward to it, even though taking three-days out of clinical work back is a big chunk of time and effectively wrecks your week. And there’s three of these three-day residentials over the year plus a pile of homework.

So what was it like? If you follow these things on Twitter, you would have got a flavour and seen some of the photos.

No doubt you have heard of the basic structure, but what we had was two sessions on the modules, plus a day with the ‘SQIL’ programme at Harvard, plus a few lectures and ‘interactive exercises’.

SQIL it turns out isn’t something that needs a topical ointment, but stands for the Safety, Quality, Informatics and Leadership programme at Harvard Medical School: a “one-year programme consisting of three in-person, 3-day workshops, live interactive webinars, pre-recorded lectures and peer collaboration”. Sounds familiar…

Excitement all around 

My main reflection is that the various organisers are clearly very excited. I can say this confidently, as they kept telling us how excited they were at every turn.

Unfortunately, in their excited state, they’d rather forgotten that all of us, as prospective students, don’t have the same level of knowledge and understanding about the course as they do.

As well as a lot of excitement from the organisers, it was obvious the course has been planned very rapidly.  One sign of this was that we students only got access to the ‘Blackboard’ portal — the place we are meant to access course information — a few days before. To be honest I don’t think most people even had a chance to look at it.

And while it was clearly an introduction session, the content was lacking in a bit of detail. For example, they had a session to ‘introduce the module co-ordinators’, and they each said “I am the leader of module one” but didn’t reveal what module one actually was!

The upshot is that by the end of the three days, I think most of us were very little the wiser about what we would actually have to do practically — and some more details on that would have been very welcome.

We did get some wise words from the great and the good (Lord Darzi probably the biggest name) which was interesting as I’d not heard them speak in person before. However this was all very high level stuff and I’m wondering how to apply to the real life problems I’ve got back at the base.

For me at least, and I recognise I may be in the minority, the module introduction sessions were also very superficial and they had concentrated on style and an experiential approach.  There were no PowerPoints, instead there were enormous ‘conference’ style module stands which you were encouraged to walk around… not least by there not being enough chairs to sit down on.

Getting stuck on post-its

There were also innumerable pointless post-it note exercises and sticking sticky dots on to the boards. Being completely honest, I didn’t really think I learned anything much from these. They aren’t really my thing (and my heart sinks when people roll out flipcharts at meetings) although I can understand the underlying motivation to gather ideas and engage people in discussion.

There were also quite a few of the fairly generic ‘leadership skills’ exercises, for example making paper planes, building towers out of cardboard and other similar fashionable activities but I’m not sure how much one really learns from them.

The best bits 

The best bits were when there was some actual content delivered from the various academics, and then there was a quite complicated negotiation simulation which was really good although not perhaps specific to digital health stuff. I actually found it quite a relief to go back to more familiar ‘classroom’ learning and it was particularly good to hear it from some high-powered academics.

Mixing with the SQIL students, an international bunch, was interesting up to a point, but the gulf in culture/knowledge of the UK system was unfortunately a bit of a barrier. So any attempt at discussion usually ended up in having to explain what CCGs, CQC, NICE and all the other acronyms actually were!

Things will surely get better

I don’t want to be too hard on them as it was a first go and done with very little prep time. However, my overall feeling was that if people are going to take three days out like this then it needs to be worthwhile, and I think you could deliver a lot of solid content in three days rather than the sort of thing we actually did.

I am hoping the next two sessions will be much better. I am going to feed all this back to the organisers, as I don’t think I was the only one to think this.  And I’m sure I won’t be complaining about lack of content once the homework starts piling up.

Very serious indeed

My final reflection is that although we have heard quite a lot about it, I’m not sure that many people had twigged about how seriously Imperial College are taking all this.

Throughout the three days there was some very strong language about assessments, lack of extensions and contracts. They are very serious and very business-like about the whole thing.

I hadn’t really realised this myself. So there will probably be a bit of a shake down as I suspect at least some people doing it don’t quite know what they letting themselves in for.  I’m not sure I do yet, either. We shall see.