An Accelerator like no other This NHS programme, more like a drip feed than the conventional injection, aims to identify and support individuals with outstanding innovations that will help with the NHS’s development.
The NHS Innovation Accelerator is a well recognised programme (now in its third year) for the uptake and spread of high impact, evidence-based healthcare. While the NHS’s current challenge is how to continue to help an increasing number of patients, and maintain and raise the quality of care, the link between quality and productivity, it is asserted, lies in innovation.
Unlike other Accelerators, this is not a short-term programme: it is a fellowship – in several senses. Fellows are very carefully selected for their capability to scale their innovations; they work as beacons of their own special healthcare developments; and they are collaborators through a learning network.
It aims to support exceptional individuals – as ‘Fellows’ (who can be clinicians, academics, from charitable and not-for-profit organisations or from industry – SMEs or large corporates). The significant majority are from industry, despite the strong argument that healthcare professionals have a unique exposure to the challenges facing the NHS. They must have a passion for and commitment to scaling their innovations – for greater patient and population benefit, and for sharing their learning, insight and expertise widely. And they must be able to demonstrate valuable innovation, and to have had extensive involvement with users.
Each of the currently 36 Fellows, have been selected through a rigorous, multi-stage assessment process – involving many parties – in all, over 100 assessors.
It is widely accepted that these are complex markets where clinical guidelines, professional choice, personal choice, consumer purchasing and means testing cross boundaries with commissioning, buying and free at point of use services. And then every unit – hospital, GP practice, community centre etc has its own decision-making powers; so scaling up any innovation faces big challenges.
This year’s cohort (of 11) is targeted at more specific areas of need than previously eg mental health/early intervention/self care and education. The processes, the two sides of the coin – of finding out what is out there by way of opportunities, and of navigating and understanding the processes involved in delivering innovation – are getting better understood. But every new Fellow has to discover for himself/herself the ways through the necessary thicket of acceptances.
All Fellows are supported by a learning programme – hosted by UCL Partners, and co-designed with patient networks, Fellows, and Academic Health Sciences Network (AHSN) partners – to be agile and adaptive, to build on existing infrastructure, to be collaborative and to enable Fellows to test hypotheses about how to get their innovations diffused within the NHS.
Crucial help seems to consist in close support and guidance – learning from each other and from people experienced in the field.
Each new annual cohort joins the three-year programme, though commitment is renewable annually. Their initiation starts with a series of half-day meetings – of such things as one-to-one meetings with the core team (the programme leaders), pitch training sessions, and a speed-dating event at which they rotate around a series of desks where they explain their scaling strategy to two or three experts in eg research, commissioning, IT, marketing, finance etc., from which they get feed-back. (And they get to know each other.)
Each annual programme is launched with a major event, to which a wide range of interested parties are invited (Fellows and the core team hold a meeting in the morning and the public event follows on.)
The support programme is built round regular quarterly one-day ‘Sprint’ meetings, held in London, which are facilitated. These are described essentially as opportunities to connect with other Fellows, to reflect on and share insights, and hear from external speakers. Fellows also meet with programme leaders on a one-to-one basis every six weeks; and they often arrange to meet one another at other times; and there is a Fellows online forum.
They also have opportunities to meet up – two or three at a time – with specialist advisers (eg on health scanning/ business development etc); and introductions to local specialists can be effected through the country’s 15 AHSNs. Also there is a bank of 18 specialist mentors, with whom meetings can be arranged.
As the programme evolves, increasing emphasis is being placed on commercial expertise and commercial experts; on enhancing opportunities for Fellows to connect with and learn from one another; and on raising the profile of the programme – especially through its networking activity. Consideration is also now being given to some form of Alumni programme.
A very recent report (1) identified ‘conditions for the successful scaling of healthcare innovations’. Regarded as crucial were: having a supportive network of contacts that can open doors to key influencers and patient involvement; and harnessing insights of mentors, expert networking and demonstrating how innovations support national and local agendas [‘door openers’ and ‘mentors’]. Overcoming barriers to innovation diffusion, in a challenging financial climate, said the report, requires an agile mindset, a willingness to revise and adapt innovations, and skills in engaging clinicians to persuade them of the benefits [‘creative’, ‘adaptive’ and ‘persuasive’].
The NHS Accelerator reports that it is making an ‘unprecedented impact’ on the NHS and the people it serves: almost a thousand additional NHS providers and commissioners are now using these innovations, £40 million external funding has been secured, and 116 jobs created (as of January 2018). And its Fellows are helping the system to understand what the barriers are to innovation, where the opportunities lie, and how to alleviate some of the frustrations.
Methodologically this is not a classic Accelerator. Its closest relationship is perhaps to the Clore Fellowship Programme in the Arts, which is a learnt rather than taught programme – experiential and grounded in practice, in a peer group, and about building on your own strengths, values and style of leadership, with the help of fulsome support. And to Scotland’s CivTech programme for innovations in public services (which included two big problems in the NHS).
They all undoubtedly help their participants to deliver innovations, but the NHS Accelerator only tickles the generic problem of making it easier to introduce innovations into the NHS, an issue faced by many organisations and addressed as such first and foremost by Boards and management (2).
Afterthought: what would happen if Fellows already in the NHS were enabled to appoint local Associate Fellows, with similar support, but based on regional centres?
(1) NHS Innovation Accelerator Evaluation – Final Report, March 2018.
(2) Four things you can do to make innovation happen. Amy Muller/Strategos, April 2017.
John Whatmore, May 2018