NHS doctor and innovation advisor at Imperial College Health Partners, Dr Hai Lin Leung, reflects on how the Covid-19 pandemic has helped catalyse innovation across the health service.

Innovation and collaboration: two words which define my experience of working in the NHS over the past six months. Yes, there are others which spring to mind – heroism, pressure, and exhaustion among them – but it’s those two simple words which can explain both the NHS’s incredible pandemic response.

I’ve been working for the NHS for years, and consider myself familiar with this bureaucratic and internally striated organism. Prior to the pandemic, instigating meaningful change or to introduce a new initiative required time, patience and lots of careful planning.

But then the coronavirus arrived, and the rules were cast aside.

A cross-sector flourishing of ideas and creativity was born from a tear in the fabric of normality. The companies creating low-cost PPE, remote consultation apps, doctor redeployment software and so much more were all suddenly given the funding, open-armed encouragement and space at the table which they had previously been denied. Solutions were judged on their efficacy alone, not on who or where they’d come from.

Working together

Simultaneously, siloed or fragmented healthcare organisations were driven by force of necessity to work with one another to tackle a common threat. Competitors became colleagues, and previously disparate puzzle pieces could finally be slotted together.

From my perspective, it seems that the NHS has undergone more structural changes, embarked on more partnerships, and integrated more new technologies over the past six months than it has in the past six years. And a yet bigger challenge lies ahead; how to preserve the conditions that facilitated such a dynamic and solution-oriented modus operandi when it came to the crunch.

As one of the ICU Transfer Coordinators within the North West London Critical Care Network, I saw the merits of the red-tape roll-back first hand.

When Northwick Park’s ICU (Intensive Care Unit) approached capacity in early March, it was my job to coordinate with other ICUs of NWL to facilitate the transfer of patients to neighbouring hospitals. However, the onboarding and administrative processes associated with recruiting and remunerating the clinicians were complex, time consuming, and ultimately unsustainable.

In need of a solution, my colleagues and I began to search for external collaborators to provide support which is when we found Patchwork Health. Within days, the technology had enabled our clinicians to start self-booking onto vacant transfer shifts and had streamlined payroll – speeding up the process and dramatically reducing our admin burden.

Benefits of collaborations

Without a doubt, the chance to adopt radically new digital solutions such as this, enabled my team to onboard higher numbers of clinicians in a shorter amount of time, and to build a digital bank of ICU transfer clinicians which we can re-activate whenever the demand surfaces. It’s an opportunity we wouldn’t have seized had we not been given the sudden autonomy to seek solutions outside of the normal frame.

I am fully aware that the wholesale suspension of procedure and subversion of structure is an unsustainable and undesirable way of operating. But I also see how, as a second infection peak hovers on the near horizon, many NHS units are still reaping the benefits of their springtime collaborations.

So now I implore senior NHS management to ask themselves how the myriad new partnerships and collaborative relationships which have been forged over the past months (and proved their efficacy) can be maintained.

Now is the time for every colleague to join the discussion, to share their reflections on how the successful crisis-initiated innovations, and the environment which enabled them, can be made sustainable and embedded into normal operating procedures.

In the midst of a crisis which has caused so much pain, it’s all the more important that we don’t let the few positives slip through our fingers. We must nurture the green shoots of change which emerged this spring, and protect them from the hard frost of a challenging winter season. Reverting to the ‘old normal’ might seem the easiest, safest path, but it’s not the route which will produce the resilient and fit-for-purpose healthcare system which this decade demands.