Taking the lab approach to enabling innovation in healthcare

The Senior Fellow to the Chair and Chief Executive’s Office of NHS England explains how cutting edge ideas can be turned into reality:

The notion of being bound by only what we know, and the confines of traditional thinking, are a deterrent to real and meaningful innovation.

The concept of innovation labs or innovation hubs have been the powerhouse of the creative and design breakthrough in the private sector – but the health research and service delivery field continues to apply 20th century approaches to solve 21st century challenges.

At the Health and Care Innovation Expo 2015 this week, the energy and enthusiasm was evident that healthcare professionals from across the country want to get involved with initiatives that allow them to innovate. However, what inhibits their disruptive thinking and ambition is the lack of a conducive system and infrastructure.

Additionally, healthcare remains a silo operated industry with the NHS lacking a viable demand for innovation.

For this to change we need to encourage more cross fertilisation of ideas – both within the NHS, which is lacking due to the fragmentation of the system, as well as with people from outside healthcare – designers, developers, engineers, scientists and business people to name a few.

This will ensure fresh perspectives are brought to the table and can contribute towards the development of sustainable and realistic solutions.

A potential solution for encouraging innovation and out-of-the-box thinking is to develop innovation labs to help healthcare professionals ideate, implement and execute with resources provided at each point of the innovation value chain to overcome barriers.

These labs, which can take the form of a specialised physical environment or a virtual hub, can be operated from within hospitals or GP federations.

The labs have dedicated resources for innovation and are responsible for developing, conducting rapid prototypes and maturing ideas from frontline staff by hand-holding and guiding them through the innovation journey.

Ideas can be chosen via competitions or by identifying high level themes that need addressing. Through the networks the lab can develop, it can allow one to draw on diverse perspectives from across and within the system.

This method has a twofold benefit: Firstly, providers benefit from the innovation in-house and develop a culture that encourages unique perspectives to solving common challenges. By being engaged in the innovation process from the start, staff and patients develop a greater sense of ownership over the solution and, therefore, a greater tendency to use the solution.

Secondly, when the innovation gains traction and matures, it can provide an extra source of revenue through commercialising or licensing the product, and the tech transfer offices at Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) can play an important role in realising this.

There are examples of labs dotted across the world such as the MindLab in Denmark or the Harvard Innovation Lab in Boston but many have a limited healthcare focus. In the US, an increasing number of the large academic medical centres have now created their own innovation labs such as Garfield Center at Kaiser Permanente and the iHub at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

These programs allow large organisations to capitalise on the human capital that exists in their organisations and help employees be more engaged in innovation.

We are starting to see the emergence of this approach in the UK with innovation organisations such as Nesta as well as provider-led organisations such as the HELIX at Imperial College London that work closely with Imperial College NHS Trust.

These organisations are examples of how with dedicated resources, the skills gap of ideation, execution and re-engineering can be bridged, which is a key component of an innovation lab. With these organisations, solutions are co-developed with providers as partnerships are established at a very early stage.

Taking ideas to the next stage and into fully-fledged products and services beyond prototypes requires not only dedicated resource and expertise, but also time. Previous innovation incubators have had mixed responses in terms of success but we need to get the balance right between recognition and reward through both financial and non-financial incentives.

Innovating in one’s spare time and on the ‘margin’ does not have the same effect. The launch of the ‘Clinical Entrepreneur’ scheme by Professor Bruce Keogh at NHS Expo is an excellent initiative and example of where there is protected time for clinicians to focus on innovation.

We are at the intersection of disruption and integrated health systems and providers can make innovation more of an in-house process. By combining the lab approach principles with the dedicated time for employees can be an enabler for innovation and also help remove the silos and segregation that exist within organisations. We just need the leadership to help facilitate this. 

Harpreet Sood

Dr Harpreet Sood is currently a Clinical Advisor for the COVID-19 Vaccine programme, a GP and a board member at Health Education England. Previously he was Associate Chief Clinical Information Officer and Senior Fellow to the CEO of NHS England.

In his previous roles Harpreet led on the NHS Digital Academy and worked on the Global Digital Exemplar programme.

Harpreet trained as a clinical doctor at King’s College London and Imperial College Business School and practiced as a doctor in East London.

Following this he did a masters degree in public health (MPH) at Harvard University where he focused on international health policy and co-founded a digital health start-up.

Post MPH, Harpreet was a Deland Fellow in health policy and management at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a large academic medical centre in Boston.