Looking around the room at last year’s Digital Health Summer Schools, Shera Chok realised she was one of the few women from an ethnic minority background. That’s why at this year’s event she and colleagues are launching a new network designed to increase diversity in digital health leadership.

It was around this time last year that the sizeable challenge facing BME women working in health tech really hit me.

I was attending my first ever Digital Health Summer Schools in Birmingham, and about halfway through the first morning I realised I was one of a handful of women delegates who were from an ethnic background. With around 400 plus senior NHS leaders at the event, we were certainly in the minority.

This does not reflect frontline health services. About 20% of NHS staff are BME by background and 77% are women. But that’s not mirrored across the leadership of digital health informatics.

NHS transformation needs everyone

While studies have shown that diversity increases innovation within organisations by making it possible to call on different perspectives, approaches and experiences, the NHS has yet to fully embrace this opportunity.

Encouragingly the NHS Long Term Plan for England says that “respect, equality and diversity will be central to changing the culture of the NHS and will be at the heart of the workforce implementation plan”, acknowledging that despite boasting a rich diversity of people “we fall short in valuing their contributions and ensuring fair treatment and respect.

Our leadership needs to reflect the frontline better. We have an abundance of talented nurses, midwives, allied health professionals (AHPs), pharmacists and data analysts who can bring different ideas and challenge the status quo. But they do not have a platform to step into leadership roles that could really impact the role of technology in service delivery and the patient experience.

Googling what a CCIO does

My own introduction to digital health came as a surprise. When I was interviewed for an associate medical director role at Derbyshire Community Health Services NHS Foundation Trust, I was told that I was also going to be the CCIO as well. After the interview, I had to Google: “What is a CCIO?” I also met Keith McNeil, then NHS England CCIO, to find out more. I wasn’t technical at all, and being a CCIO was just not on my career roadmap.

But I learnt on the job. Colleagues were initially resistant to technology-enabled change, but we managed to build a more inclusive workforce. We listened to what clinicians were saying, empathised with their views and addressed their concerns – breaking down change to a pace that they were happy with.

And after just two years the culture had completely changed. The nurses who were initially our fiercest critics ended up leading the IT strategy and being champions for change. Our informatics team had a much stronger relationship with our clinicians. We implemented e-prescribing across 12 community hospitals successfully, developed a Derbyshire-wide CCIO network, and shared with colleagues in Derby a model for virtual renal outpatient appointments used in East London which has cut waiting times.

My jump into the world of digital health exposed qualities that I did not know I had. There must be so much more talent within the NHS with the same potential who just need a platform or some guidance to steer them in the right direction.

A network is born

After speaking to Sarah Amani, the first female BME CCIO in the country, we decided to take action. The Shuri Network was born to help address this imbalance and support women of colour in digital health to develop the skills and confidence to progress into senior leadership positions.

Our hope is that the network will bring together champions, role models and pioneers in informatics and digital health to provide support for BME women. We envisage an active learning community, mentoring and support to apply for leadership roles in digital health.

And while we want to help BME women within the NHS reach their potential, we also want to help attract people from outside the NHS. I think we are missing a trick here by not developing our talent pool and attracting bright and talented women from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) backgrounds into the NHS.

Attracting talent into the NHS

I recently asked a group of 30 young women whether they had thought about working for the health service. They responded by saying the NHS is not at careers fairs like Google, Uber and other private tech companies.

We need to promote the NHS as an exciting place where you can give back to your community. There’s an immense amount of satisfaction in knowing you are helping to save lives through your job, whether you are a bioengineer, data analyst or IT support.

Back to Summer Schools

The official launch of the Shuri Network takes place at this year’s Summer Schools, where our journey began. We have a launch reception and a panel of fantastic women from nursing, surgical and academic backgrounds coming to discuss why diversity will help organisations deliver their digital transformation programme.

The panel on day one includes Sonia Patel, joint CIO of two London NHS trusts; Professor Laura Serrant, chair of the chief nursing officer for England’s BME strategic advisory group; US surgeon and former director at the NHS Digital Academy Dr Ijeoma Azodo; Heather Caudle, director of nursing – leadership and quality, NHS England and NHS Improvement; and of course, my Shuri Network cofounder.

These amazing women will explore how NHS IT leaders plan to build their leadership pipeline in their trust, and how can the network help by broadening the talent pool.

The panellists return for an afternoon workshop. They will share their stories about how they broke through the traditional hierarchies and barriers, and hopefully inspire aspiring BME women leaders to do the same.

We know that the NHS needs to think big, find pioneering uses of digital, and continually innovate. Greater diversity will support it to do that, and we hope the Shuri Network will in turn support that diversity.


The Digital Health Summer Schools are the most popular and prestigious health IT leadership events of the year. The 2019 edition will be held at the University of Leeds, 18-19 July.