Feeling innovative?

Posted on October 13, 2011 by


Interesting debate focused on innovation in the NHS in Westminster Hall yesterday. The minister gave a few clues to the ongoing NHS review of innovation being led by David Nicholson, NHS Chief Executive, and explained how the government expect changes to the NHS planned in the Health & Social Care Bill to support innovation.


Innovation is the process of adopting and diffusing new ideas, technologies and processes. It’s important because it both improves patient care and fosters growth in the healthcare industry, bringing more investment into the UK.

The NHS is currently reviewing how good they are at innovation and how they can get better at it.

As one of the largest single healthcare systems in the world, the NHS has the potential to be very good at innovation, but in practice we’re often quite slow and some new innovations even fail to achieve widespread use.

AMRC had fed into the NHS review which is still going – we expect it to report in the next month or so.

We pushed for the review not to be conducted in isolation from all the other changes afoot, the changes to the NHS planned by the health and social care bill, and the work to streamline regulation and establish the Health Research Authority,

Interesting bits of the debate

John Glen, Conservative MP for Salisbury, had requested the debate. He has a particular interest in how the NHS supported innovation as a company, Odstock Medical Ltd, has  grown from his local NHS Foundation Trust. OML has pioneered a technique called functional electrical stimulation that produces contractions in paralysed muscles by applying small pulses of electrical stimulation but has been having trouble accessing grants etc to grow the company.

Margot James made a nice mention of the problems new innovations face in being adopted and diffused across the NHS so that patients can benefit from them in the care they receive. Norman Williams, President of the Royal College of Surgeons of England, was quoted in an article in the Times this week discussing the problem of rolling out surgical innovations – citing the example of advances in keyhole surgery to treat bowel cancer. The College has actually looked at this in more detail and made recommendations on how to improve this in a recent report From Theory to Theatre: Overcoming barriers to innovation in surgery

Does he agree that, although it is important for the NHS to realise the commercial value of innovation, it is also fundamental to the improvement of patient care that innovations take hold more rapidly? Did he see this morning’s comments by Professor Williams, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, who warned of a 20-year wait before innovations start saving lives if we base innovation progress on previous experience? He cited reduced deaths from bowel cancer as a result of keyhole surgery, which took years to become widespread practice.

John Glen outlined his concern that the NHS was not exploiting its potential to innovate:

The current NHS process for capitalising on these innovations is not quick enough. There is limited access to NHS funding, and progress is inhibited by insufficient incentives and enabling mechanisms to encourage trusts to invest in such promising cost-saving technologies.

Simon Burns was the health minister responding (Earl Howe is the health minister with responsibility for research and innovation but he is a Lords minister so cannot come to this debate in the Commons). He suggested that the move to a more devolved NHS would foster innovation:

…the single biggest thing that we are doing to encourage innovation is to devolve power to clinical professionals, trusting their professional judgment and their desire to do their best for their patients.

He outlined how the government intend the changes to the NHS planned in the Health & Social Care Bill to support innovation. In three ways:

  • place the patient at the centre of decision-making about their own care so that providers will have to innovate to stand out.
  • will have a resolute focus on improving health outcomes—publishing the data and rewarding excellence—so that hospitals and others will have a powerful incentive to innovate and improve.
  • will place power in the hands of local clinicians so their knowledge and expertise can drive innovation

He touched on the importance of an NHS workforce with the skills to get involved with and understand research i.e. the skills to innovate and take up new skills. As the Health & Social Care Bill goes forward, one of the big concerns is to ensure that education and training is improved to ensure everyone – scientists, doctors, nurses and managers – has the skills to engage with research.

He mentioned government initiatives aimed at supporting innovation:

  • the Plan for Growth published alongside the 2011 budget committed to a number of iniatives to support life sciences and healthcare, including a new translational funding stream and establishing the Health Research Authority to streamline regulation. This also led to the establishment of NHS Global which takes the NHS brand overseas to attract more commercial exploitation of NHS innovation.
  • £60 million has been invested in regional innovation funds, which support front-line staff to develop and spread new ideas and validate the notion that it is good to challenge the way things have always been done
  • the new duties planned in the health & social care bill which will place a legal duty on the NHS commissioning board and on clinical commissioning groups to promote innovation and research

But he did conclude we need to do more, referencing the ongoing review of innovation:

Identifying, developing and commercialising new ideas within the NHS is a must, and we need to adopt a systematic approach to that. We also need to ensure that all parts of the innovation pipeline—invention, adoption and diffusion—are more efficient and effective. The NHS chief executive’s innovation review will consider that and how we can achieve better value for money.

What next?

There were a few clues in Simon Burn’s answer on what the NHS innovation review might produce when it reports in the next month or so:

Sir David Nicholson, will set out achievable, high-impact recommendations that will inform the strategic approach to innovation that is so important within a modernised NHS. We will open up NHS procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises, simplify the process and challenge them to come up with solutions to problems within the NHS.

And a lot of the other initiatives the minister referenced are still ongoing so there’s lots to keep an eye on..

Posted in: Policy