The term innovation has come to mean very little, both globally and increasingly in healthcare. Here, Guy Bridgewater, managing director of Niche Health, asks whether innovation really matters to the NHS
Within the NHS, you hear sound bite after sound bite from key policymakers about the need for innovation, often with little substance about what that actually entails and how to achieve this ‘Holy Grail’
It seems that every company is an innovator, every product is an innovation and many NHS organisations using a product that is a slight improvement on the last is considered to be innovative.
Many companies use it to describe monumental change for something quite ordinary, to imply growth, or to highlight anything good or new. Others simply use it to keep up with everyone else and not appear as though they are being left behind.
The word has become so popular that, according to Amazon, more than 350 books have been published in the past three months with the word ‘innovation’ in their title. And, even within the NHS, you hear sound bite after sound bite from key policymakers about the need for innovation, often with little substance about what that actually entails and how to achieve this ‘Holy Grail’.
Invention versus innovation
More often than not, the only way to understand whether a solution will solve a problem in the NHS is to ask frontline staff, and even patients, exactly what it is they need
Innovation is defined as being ‘a new idea, method, or device: novelty.’ More recently the word has evolved to reflect the continual improvement of an invention. Most commonly, it is described as a process whereby one does not wait for a problem to arise, instead one fixes what isn’t necessarily broken and improves things that have no apparent deficit. But surely this cannot be what policy leaders within the likes of NHS England mean when they ask the NHS to innovate?
This definition almost certainly applies to true innovators, such as Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple. Jobs did not invent the availability of any music, anytime, anywhere - Sony did when it introduced the Walkman. There was no major problem with the Walkman, but the engineers at Apple knew it could be improved through innovation. This approach is relatively common in the commercial world, where somewhat novel technologies can be developed, tried and tested to appeal to a relatively-small sector to determine their success and then rapidly taken to market for sale across the world.
Fixing what isn’t broken
However, healthcare simply cannot, and should not, treat innovation in the same way. In an environment where efficiencies desperately need to be gained and lives are at stake, we don’t just need innovators who look to fix something that is not broken. Instead we need problem solvers who can focus on existing real-world issues that NHS staff and patients face every single day.
Innovation, as applied by Apple simply is not a priority in the NHS. Problem solvers, rather than innovators, are needed because the NHS faces some of the biggest and potentially-unstoppable problems in the world – an ageing population, more complex conditions and ultimately a multi-billion pound funding gap.
We need technologies that speed up and improve existing processes and solve the problems that prevent quality, safe and efficient care from happening
In addition, the NHS can be notoriously slow to adopt innovations, particularly when it comes to technology. This is not only because it comprises the second largest workforce in the world, but also because frontline staff generally want technology that integrates easily into their working practices and positively impacts their daily lives and the care they provide for patients. Providing novel technology for technologies sake only runs the risk of creating resistance among end users. Effectively, creating solutions that do not solve a direct problem in the NHS also run the risk of requiring too much change. Many products that cause too much disruption in a marketplace, as good as they are, never see the light of day.
A faster horse
More often than not, the only way to understand whether a solution will solve a problem in the NHS is to ask frontline staff, and even patients, exactly what it is they need. Innovation in its most-literal sense, the way great innovators apply it, simply does not take this into account. And, of course, there is a reason for this – Henry Ford once famously said that if he had asked consumers what they wanted (i.e. what problem needed solving) they would have told him ’a faster horse’.
But in the NHS, a faster horse is exactly what we need (well not quite), but we need technologies that speed up and improve existing processes and solve the problems that prevent quality, safe and efficient care from happening.
Funding for problem solving
What I’m not saying is that we should rule out creativity altogether and only focus on the basics, but that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on harnessing and developing ideas and spreading them across the system to bring about real and sustainable change
The Technology Fund and the recently-announced Innovation Fund have gone some way to being more specific about and identifying the problems that can be solved by technology – for example in ePrescribing, where there is proven research that such technology can save lives and improve productivity.
What I’m not saying is that we should rule out creativity altogether and only focus on the basics, but that a greater emphasis needs to be placed on harnessing and developing ideas and spreading them across the system to bring about real and sustainable change. This will help to solve the wider challenges we face, which are imperative to resolve for the survival of our health service.
So I urge suppliers and NHS organisations alike to ignore the empty calls for innovation and instead focus on the possibilities while looking for an answer to the thousands of unsolved problems that the NHS faces.