Why every NHS Trust needs a digital innovation leader

Katrina Percy, CEO of Ryalto, writes that digital health must truly be treated as a board issue if patient empowerment and access, staff engagement and improved outcomes in services are to take place.

When it comes to the NHS’ IT strategy, history speaks to a legacy of big contracts being awarded to a small number of well-known tech suppliers. Surprisingly, spending millions with large IT providers is the cultural norm, whereas trialling entry-level tech innovation is often perceived as more challenging. This is despite the digital health revolution being fuelled by innovative health tech companies, who are creating patient apps, wearable gadgets and diagnostic AI, to name a few.

There’s undoubtedly a huge opportunity to tie systems and innovation into wider NHS clinical services and a digitised back office. We’re already seeing dedicated accelerators such as DigitalHealth.London work hard to open up the NHS to new health technologists and start-ups. However, this will require a longer-term shift in thinking and culture. If we want to drive patient empowerment and access, staff engagement and improved outcomes in our services, digital health must truly be treated as a board issue.

Start with people

A fresh approach to any organisation’s tech strategy starts with the right people. The NHS has some brilliant tech leaders among its CIO community, however, a true digital health transformation demands a standalone head of digital and tech. This is someone who understands how to navigate this fast-evolving world and can test, innovate and look at the opportunity to take investment into the companies themselves.

Communicating with the board

It’s important to get the board to see the broader opportunities and benefits that embracing the full potential that digital health technology can bring – to patients and your people – at all levels. It’s about seeing the challenges and committing to improving them by opening up the ecosystem and collaborating with the best innovators out there. What’s essential is that the board realises that the risk doesn’t lie in investing in new tech and partnering with more agile health tech platforms – it lies in not doing it.

Think about where digital health sits

Think where digital and tech leadership sits in your organisation. This person doesn’t necessarily report into your CIO, but may work alongside them as a peer, with a direct line into your CEO. We need to have that real ability to encourage technology at the highest level and once changes have been implemented, handed over to the part of the business leading on it. This supports a genuine enthusiasm and distinct ownership for embedding innovation and change. It also underpins accountability and transparency.

Ask the right questions

An essential step to getting digital health on the board agenda is clarifying where it sits in relation to the overall organisational strategy. What is your digital patient solution? What is your staff engagement platform? Once you’ve established what your platform is, you can collaborate with health tech talent to innovate on top of it – in a way that tackles the specific challenges you face and delivers the right outcomes. Opening up to more innovative partners that bring pioneering new tech with them then becomes part of the process of organisational shift towards a more cohesive, innovative and flexible NHS.

Digital health, while seeking to improve patient care, is also able to reduce the pressure on our under-resourced healthcare system – from GP appointments to A&E waiting rooms- and leadership needs to move with this.

Digital health needs to be heard at the highest level – from integrating AI into patient diagnostics to creating new ways for chronic conditions to be self-managed – leaders need to find the time, motivation and strategy to affect change. Choosing the right technology has many returns: freeing up your staff and driving efficiencies as well as patient-focused outcomes like reducing recovery time. Investing in that technology can be the game-changer as well as have a real long term impact on spend. Communicate this with the board, secure buy-in and you might just drive lasting change and opportunity.


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