28 January 2019

Innovation and research for better health: five key opportunities

When the NHS Long Term Plan was published at the beginning of this year, many of us across the health and care spectrum scrambled to quickly assimilate a long-awaited document setting out the ambitions of the service over the next decade.

It was immediately apparent – and welcome – that innovation and research was given a clear emphasis, with plans to invest in latest technology, digital health and cutting-edge treatments. This came together with an endorsement of the key role of Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) in finding, testing and spreading new treatments and products to improve patient care.

Of course, the proof of the effectiveness of the plan lies in its implementation. I think we need to focus on five key areas to ensure we harness innovation and research to the full to achieve the ambitions laid out in the plan.

  1. Create more comprehensive and systematic platforms to support innovation and improvement. The work of AHSNs to signpost commercial innovators and match already-proven solutions to challenges faced by local NHS organisations will be key to this. Increased collaboration between the 15 AHSNs across England will help identify what is working best locally, and then scale it across the country. National initiatives supported by AHSNs, such as the NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA), will also be vital in helping create the conditions and cultural change necessary for proven innovations to be adopted faster and more systematically for patient benefit.
  2. Ensure better use of actionable data. Collecting more data is obscuring our ability to collect once and use often. This of course needs user participation and agreed frameworks of assurance and consent – not easy but it can be done. The logical key to this will be Local Health Care Record Exemplars (LHCREs) – regional collaborations across health, care and local authorities to create shared health and care records for the people in their region. LHCREs are now being developed in areas covering over half the population of England.
  3. Enhance recruitment of patients into research studies. The NHS Long Term Plan pledges to increase the number of people registering to participate in health research to one million by 2023/24, and says that people will be able to register their interest in taking part in research on the NHS App by 2020. Through close working with Clinical Research Networks and with industry, a number of the academic health science partnerships in England are supporting increased recruitment. New models however are desperately needed that can allow better community, mental health and primary care uptake. Commercial companies also have a lot to add here. Back in 2013 UCLPartners partnered with IQVIA , the world’s biggest clinical research organisation (then known as Quintiles), to become a Prime site. Prime sites receive first notification of all IQVIA trials in Europe and the company provides substantial infrastructure contributions that support study initiation and recruitment. Our IQVIA Prime site has been one of the top commercial recruiting sites into clinical trials in the UK, working across many of our NHS partner trusts. IQVIA has spread this model with sites in the South West and Scotland and as part of the recent Life Sciences sector deal will invest £24 million in a Prime site in the north of England.
  4. Support delivery of digital innovation hubs. Led by Health Data Research UK, the Digital Innovation Hub Programme is a UK-wide initiative to enable the safe and responsible use of health-related data at scale for research and innovation. Bringing together academia, industry and NHS in this way is vital to allow rapid scaling of the best evidence-based innovations and to combine capabilities and resources in the use of transformational technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI).
  5. Focus on workforce. This is perhaps the most important focus of all. Nothing gets done without the right people in the right place doing the right thing. Technology can help them but won’t replace them. While the Plan recognises the scale of the workforce challenges facing the NHS, and sets out some specific measures to address it, it is light on potential solutions. We need to focus on innovations that make the NHS a better place to work and support over a million great people to do what they came into health care for – improving the lives of patients and populations.

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