The ingredients for success: how to bake innovation into the NHS

The NHS has an illustrious history of research and innovation. It has led to breakthroughs in prevention of ill-health, earlier diagnosis, more effective treatments, better outcomes, faster recovery, and played an essential role in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Innovation not only transforms patients’ lives but also brings significant benefits to the UK economy and society.

Today, the ongoing pressures stemming from the pandemic, when much routine care was put on hold, has been compounded by the prolonged period of industrial action. Furthermore, in common with many health and care systems across the world, our population is living longer and often with long term illnesses.

Now more than ever, having an NHS that fosters innovation is critical.

As a recent report from the NHS Confederation stressed, “for the NHS and the wider health and care system to survive and thrive for the benefit of its users, innovation at every stage and in every aspect is not only desirable, but necessary”.

NHS England is committed to supporting the adoption of innovation.  We host the Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC) bringing together the key players in health research and innovation in the UK to support the uptake of proven innovation. We have also just relicensed the Health Innovation Networks, established 10 years ago to support the spread of innovation at pace and scale.

While our commitment is stronger than ever, the barriers that slow and stall the adoption of innovation also remain. However, over the years, we have learnt from our successes, and our failures, so we know the common ingredients for success. Broadly they fall into five areas:

  1. Clinical leadership: Success often hinges on strong local and national clinical leadership. Clinical networks and early dialogue with professional bodies on the evidence base for adoption is crucial.
  2. Pathway redesign and capacity: Introducing innovation often means that whole clinical pathways have to be redesigned. This requires clinical capacity, resource allocation, clinical leadership, co-production with users and clear guidance. This approach, which is more holistic than focusing on an individual product, helps embed lasting transformation.
  3. Funding and incentives: Central funding has proven effective in driving change but not sustaining it. A more consistent sustainable approach involves using payment frameworks to help bring clarity and certainty around who pays for what. In addition, enhanced horizon scanning and market intelligence is enabling a more commercially orientated outlook which supports the NHS to invest in the innovations that make the biggest difference to patients.
  4. National vs local approaches: Historically, programmes supporting the adoption of innovation have followed a national approach. However, different incentive and reimbursement approaches are often required for different settings. The newly relicensed Health Innovation Networks are well placed to adapt national aims to more local approaches and priorities identified by population health management.
  5. Defining adoption stages: Innovators, clinicians, industry and evaluators need clarity as to where innovations are in the process of taking a product from proof of concept to market and wider adoption in the NHS and care system. The NHS Innovation Service is a free, online platform supporting innovators to get the right support at the right time. In addition, work is ongoing to develop a common innovation taxonomy to define stages of MedTech innovation and bring clarity to which products require what support and we are developing policy and guidance on how digital products should be defined.

Our health and care leaders have an opportunity to use innovation and research to tackle some of the challenges they and the populations they serve face.

We know the ingredients for success. By working together, we can create an NHS and care system that supports innovation to thrive and harness its power to improve patient and population outcomes and deliver more accessible, integrated, and personalised care.

Read more about the evidence which has informed NHS England’s and the AAC’s approach to supporting the adoption and spread of innovation. It was discussed in a paper presented by Vin Diwakar, National Director of Transformation, NHS England at the AAC board in November 2023.

Verena Stocker

Verena leads a suite of programmes to improve patient outcomes and reduce health inequalities through research and innovation.

Prior to this, she held a number of senior roles at NHS England, including leading the Laura Wade-Gery review into how the NHS should undertake digital transformation; led the Transformation Strategy team; and led work on developing Integrated Care Systems.

Previously Verena was a management consultant in healthcare in Australia and the UK, after beginning her career as a healthcare advisor in the Australian Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.