Digital innovation in the NHS

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Digital innovation in the NHS

Published 5 November 2018

Tara Donnelly, Chief Executive of the Health Innovation Network tells Adrian O’Dowd how digital, technology and AI are all fast becoming a common reality in the NHS, helping to save lives, money and improve services.

Innovation and technology are buzz words in the NHS and you would find it difficult to find a better example of a champion for these causes than Tara Donnelly, Chief Executive of the Health Innovation Network.

Donnelly started working in the NHS when she was 18 as a ward housekeeper at the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guilford – a job she loved.

“All day long you did things for people who were very grateful, like helping blind ladies to read the menu and welcoming visitors,” she explains. “It’s a bit different when you get into NHS management – you get far fewer thank-yous.”

Donnelly has a wide-ranging background in leadership roles within the NHS, having spent 18 years at board level, including at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, as a non-executive Director at Macmillan Cancer Support, as Chief Executive at the West Middlesex University Hospital and as Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Operations at the Whittington Hospital.

Sharing innovation

She joined the Health Innovation Network, which includes 15 Academic Health Science Networks (AHSN) across England, for south London in 2015. The organisation seeks to speed up best practice in health and care across the 12 boroughs of south London, working together with 55 member partners.

AHSNs were established in 2013 to connect academics, NHS commissioners and providers, local authorities, patients and patient groups, and industry stakeholders. Their aim is to speed up adoption and spread of innovative ideas and best practice across large populations, to improve health and generate economic growth.

Donnelly is the lead for digital and AI (artificial intelligence) across the 15 chief officers of the AHSNs, all of which are increasingly doing more work involving digital technology.

The Health Innovation Network has many achievements that Donnelly is clearly proud of with initiatives on patient safety, diabetes, and a scheme to get more graduates into the NHS.

“One particular achievement has been the ESCAPE-Pain scheme,” she says, citing the rehabilitation programme for people with chronic joint pain that integrates educational self-management and coping strategies, with an exercise regime individualised for each participant. “This programme, which is extremely evidence-based, improves pain dramatically and increases mobility,” she explains. “Anxiety and depression scores also improve.

“When the Health Innovation Network began, there were only a couple of sites in the whole country and none in south London. We’ve now got 82 across the country, thanks to strong support across the AHSN Network. It’s incredibly cost effective and it works, having been evidenced by a number of randomised control trials.”

Improving lives, saving money

Carrying on the Network’s good work is important as she says: “We’ve got a new five-year licence. We want to do more of what we’ve done in the past, which is focus on what our members across south London need, but also what we can learn from the rest of the country and further afield.

“We want to scale up some of the great schemes that have been developed in other AHSNs,” she continues. “After five years, we’ve all got something to share.

“Our overall mission is about improving lives, saving money and helping UK PLC, and we support businesses through our Accelerator programme. Recently, the AHSNs’ work in supporting innovators has been recognised by some funding from a different part of Government – the Office for Life Sciences.”

Her hard work has been recognised. Donnelly was included in BioBeat’s annual 50 Movers and Shakers in BioBusiness report last year for the first time. Her recognition in the list was for her “commitment and leadership in spreading innovation across the NHS in south London”.

She says AHSNs are interested in innovations of all types and not just digital. One example she points to is the recent Red Bag scheme, which gives care home patients who go into hospital in an emergency a red bag containing the resident’s vital medical info, as well as day-of-discharge clothes and other personal items. It forms a vital communication tool between hospitals and care homes and is a visual reminder to staff that when these people are in hospital, they have come from a home. Invented in the patch by colleagues in Sutton CCG with their care homes, the AHSN has been supporting its spread across the rest of south London, and the scheme is poised to go live across each of the 12 boroughs.

Accelerating innovation

Donnelly was a founding partner of DigitalHealth.London, a programme that aims to speed up the development and scaling of digital innovations across health and care, as well as pioneer their adoption by the NHS.

“We came together with our fellow AHSN partners in London, and MedCity, and established DigitalHealth.London,” she says. “It was a recommendation from the London Health Commission that London lacked a central digital institute to make it simpler for people with good digital ideas in the healthcare space to know what to do with them.

“The biggest programme that we run is the Accelerator programme, and that’s where we support very strong ideas, usually from 20 to 30 companies over the course of a year. We provide intensive support in terms of learning about the NHS and linking them into the people who have a problem that their technology could solve.”

One of the digital ideas that found success through support from DigitalHealth.London was “Perfect Ward” – an app that helps with the task of doing a ward inspection safety audit and saves nurses time. It has also been adapted for use with the London Ambulance Service and is now in place across every ambulance station in the city, saving paramedic time.

There’s also the DrDoctor system, which enables outpatients to view, change and schedule appointments themselves online, on smartphone or by conversational SMS.

The system has helped to reduce missed appointments, saving hospitals time and money, and is rated very highly by patients who use it.

Future potential

Technology’s part in the healthcare sector is sure to grow, and Donnelly believes “it has huge potential to improve services for patients, and there are lots of examples of that. It needs to grow.

“With the new secretary of state’s huge interest in technology, that has put it centre stage, and we have got a number of people leading work across the NHS at the moment who really get this, so I feel quite optimistic.

“It’s a very exciting time to be working in digital in the NHS,” she continues. “There’s huge opportunity. Even five years ago, it might have been a bit of a niche subject, but now we are getting many more of the mainstream leaders understanding this. However, it’s important that it’s the medical directors, the nursing directors and the chief executives who are leading the change programmes for which digital can be a great supporting role, and that it’s not the other way around.”

In ten years, the NHS will have adopted digital tech to a much greater degree, she believes, saying: “We will see huge changes in the next five to ten years in how many digital solutions are out there in mainstream care. The smartphone revolution is a big part of that. We know that 81% of UK adults have a smartphone, giving them incredible access and the NHS is now seeking to tap into that. The NHS App coming soon will be a great example of that.

“We are starting to see products that make a huge difference to health outcomes. Some of the products we support improve care, some save money, and some save clinical time. The best can do all three.

“We need to make sure that we are using digital to do the parts of the job that digital can do best,” she concludes, “and human beings can do the bit that they enjoy and can do best.”

With leaders like Donnelly in place, the lightning-fast speed of change in technology looks certain to benefit the NHS.
mprove services.

Artificial intelligence

The recent announcement from the Department of Health & Social Care that there will be a ‘code of conduct’ for greater use of AI and other data-driven technologies in the NHS – setting out rules of engagement between industry and the health and care system – is something that Donnelly and the AHSN Network team leading on Digital and AI, have been involved in.

AI technology is already being used across the NHS in various ways to improve early diagnosis of heart disease and lung cancer, reduce the number of unnecessary operations performed, and help research by better matching patients to clinical trials.

However, it is essential to have principles in place to guide its inevitable growth, as Donnelly says: “It’s really important that there is a robust set of rules of engagement particularly around AI and we are glad to be involved in its development.”


To read more about digital innovation in the NHS, or to speak to one of our experts, visit our MedTech page.


Tara Donnelly is Chief Executive of the Health Innovation Network, which exists to speed up the best in health and care across south London as its academic health science network, or AHSN. The clinical areas of focus relate to population health and ill health prevention, including diabetes, stroke prevention, healthy ageing, patient safety and care for MSK conditions. Innovation areas include promoting digital health solutions across the capital through the work of Digital Health.London and its accelerator, run together with MedCity and the two other London AHSNs, UCLPartners and Imperial College Health Partners.

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