Upskilling the NHS workforce is a long-debated issue with the 2019 Topal Review concluding the health service should ‘focus on building digital workforce’. Rory Tanner from the Health Tech Alliance explores the issue following on from the inaugural Parliament & Healthtech Conference last month. 

People are the most important part of healthtech innovation

Looking back on the Health Tech Alliance’s inaugural Parliament and Healthtech Conference on the 28 January, there is a quote from Dr Sam Roberts that has stayed with me: “Innovation is not just about the drugs or the technology, it’s about the translation of discovery into strategy”.

Dr Roberts is right. Although technology usually takes centre stage in any pioneering innovations, it is not the most important aspect of innovation. Indeed, the translation of discovery into strategy is not done by machine learning or AI, but by people.

People are fundamental to innovation. They are both the drivers of innovation and the recipients of its benefits. This means that at every stage of the innovation pathway, from the birth of an idea to its delivery, people should be at the heart of the process.

But this means more than people just being vaguely involved in the innovation pathway. It means that at every step, the consideration, consultation and collaboration with people needs to be the priority to help turn discovery into strategy. But the question is, what does this mean in practice?

Healthtech innovation requires patient trust

If the ultimate goal of healthcare innovation is to improve patient outcomes, then it is obvious that a key stakeholder in creating healthcare innovations is the patient. In the context of the healthtech industry, successful innovations require patients to feel comfortable with technologies, and more importantly, to trust these technologies.

One way to improve trust in healthtech innovations is to ensure that this technology can seamlessly integrate into the daily lives of patients. As the secretary of state for health and social care. Matt Hancock, said at the Parliament and Healthtech Conference, “the best kind of tech is the technology you barely notice because it just works.” In other sectors the most successful technological developments have done this, so why should healthtech be any different?

Simple things like patient records being accessible through your phone would go a long way in helping patients trust these things more. If patients get used to using these innovations every day and see the benefits it has on their level of care, then they will trust its effectiveness. This is especially important when we consider the social care challenge that we are confronted with. We need to utilise the greater connectivity we enjoy through technology to connect every home into the social care network.

Everyone needs to own it

But for technology to deliver on its transformative power in our health and social care system, there also needs to be a culture shift in the NHS, where staff embrace technology with the same enthusiasm and vigour as patients. The translation of discovery into strategy requires NHS staff to deliver this strategy on the ground. We are not used to thinking of healthtech as a means to help people to do their jobs better, but this is one of the biggest opportunities that healthtech presents.

This applies to all levels of the NHS. We need clinicians to be more aware that technology can be an enabler to save them time on the more bureaucratic parts of their job, and so they can spend more time caring for patients. We need to encourage an open-minded behavioural attitude to technology, to combat the weariness of NHS staff who have seen so many supposed technological solutions become technological challenges. We need to train all new staff to incorporate new technologies into patient pathways so that they know no other way. As Matt Hancock said, “if everyone leaves it to the IT department, it will fail”.

This change also needs to come from the top. We cannot let the failures of the past dictate the decisions of the future, and a greater embrace of technology requires a greater risk appetite. No one doubts the potential of healthtech, but the only way it can fulfil its potential is through the full support of every single NHS staff member.

The dangers of inaction

When we consider the enormity of change that is required within the NHS, it is worth asking the question, what would happen if we do not do these things?

The answer is simple. The scale of the health and social care challenge facing us with a growing and ageing population facing more and more complex health issues is such that it can only be solved through the combination of a more effective healthcare system and more efficient workforce. There is little argument that technology can improve the healthcare system, but there is far less emphasis in the public debate on how technology can improve the NHS workforce.

The challenges that our future leaders will be confronted with over the next few decades are likely to be more complex than we can even comprehend. To prepare for these challenges it is vital to teach these future decision makers about the key disruptors to the NHS and to train them to become so confident with technology that it becomes second nature to them. Equipping these leaders with the technological tools they need and supporting them to utilise these tools effectively will go a long way in helping future-proof the NHS’ long-term sustainability.

Innovation fundamentally requires people to translate innovative ideas into real solutions. It requires people to implement and deliver these solutions to ensure that the benefits are actually felt by patients. It requires patients to trust that the new and complex technologies that are being implemented will help them. At every stage of the innovation pathway, people are the most important factor. Our health system must better reflect this. It is the only way in which the challenges facing the NHS in the 2020s can be solved.