‘Innovation central to our future’

Catherine Levin reports from this year’s NHS Confed Expo.

As more than 4,500 people gathered at Manchester Central for NHS Confed Expo, NHS England Chief Exec, Amanda Pritchard gave a rousing speech celebrating 75 years of the NHS. It was a passionate paean to the past with references to Nye Bevan that in many ways are as true today as they were in 1948 when he established the National Health Service after the Second World War.

She said that ‘innovation is central to our future’ and essential to the long term survival of the NHS. The day before she spoke to this audience, London Ambulance Service reported nearly 9,000 999 calls in one day and put out a plea to Londoners to call 111 as they sweltered in the heat of the early summer. Against this backdrop, Amanda Pritchard said that the NHS needs to ‘deliver change with the greatest impact’ and it is in places where demand is greatest where this change should start. There were many mentions of artificial intelligence applications doing the heavy lifting and solutions from suppliers on display throughout the exhibition hall.

The Expo coincided with the junior doctor’s strike and NHS Confederation Chief, Matthew Taylor said he still wanted to have the Expo and keep the conversation going. He spoke without notes for 40 minutes and while self deprecating in places, he majored on the importance of the ‘honest conversation’ that needs to take place between the health service and local public services – and that includes the emergency services.

Inevitably, there was a numbered list of things to do to and Matthew Taylor had his ‘five shifts that would carry the NHS forward with confidence’. Two will resonate with the blue light sector:  a focus on prevention, which fits with the recent Hewitt Report into the Integrated Care System (ICS); and collaboration that supports innovation. Integrated Care Partnerships are the space where emergency services contribute to and are part of the innovation that can reduce health inequalities in communities.

It’s no coincidence that the Government published its combined response to the Hewitt Report and the Health and Social Care Select Committee on the opening day of the Expo. One of the recommendations was for the introduction of High Accountability and Responsibility Partnerships for those ICS that are more mature. The Government said that it’s early days and more work needs to be done to consider how these might work in practice.

‘It’s more positive than I expected,’ replied Patricia Hewitt when asked about her thoughts on the Government’s response to her report. Speaking as part of a panel convened on the second day of the Expo, she said she was not surprised that the Government did not accept all of her recommendations, but she added  that there is clearly support for ICSs and a real understanding that ICSs are about far more than just the NHS. ‘We are here to stay and we’ve got the policy stability,’ she added and implored leaders across the country to ‘Put aside your doubts, get stuck in and make this a great success.’

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care reinforced the message about ICS as he talked about devolving power and trusting local decision makers. He too talked about innovation and echoed Amanda Pritchard’s sentiments about a culture of innovation giving a strong foundation for the next 75 years of the NHS. Part of that, he said is the use of artificial intelligence to address health inequalities. He called it exciting and fast-moving, and ‘it is a force for good applied in the right way with the right safeguards in place.’

On the same day as Steve Barclay’s speech, the Government published the 2023 mandate to NHS England. One of the two key ways it identifies to enable the health service to deliver and recover is through supporting innovation and the adoption of the right digital health technologies.  Priority one of the mandate is to cut NHS waiting lists and this includes the targets set out in the urgent and emergency care recovery plan that would see three quarters of patients admitted, transferred or discharged within four hours by March 2024.  In this mandate, the Government seeks to educate the workforce ‘to be responsive to changing service models and to innovation and new technologies.’