How ICSs can help uproot risk aversion and progress innovation
Integrated Care Journal speaks with Kathy Scott and Aejaz Zahid of the Yorkshire & Humber Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) on how the implementation of a dedicated innovation hub within ICS frameworks has helped to streamline innovation and improve patient care.
Above: Barnsley Hospital, part of South Yorkshire and Bassetlaw ICS.
Integration and innovation are two increasingly prominent principles that are, in part, designed to address the growing problems of unmet health needs. Each is intended to supplement and support the development of the other.
Integrated care systems (ICSs) offer new frameworks through which innovation can be adopted at scale, streamlining past previous bureaucratic and individualistic barriers to change and adopting a transformation led approach. Innovation is crucial in turning the core aspirations of integrated care into tangible realties, to use technology and sophisticated approaches to data to help address the root causes of ill-health and expand health service offerings.
The above outlines the core principles of integration and innovation, which can be found reiterated from a wealth of sources, if one is to engage in the sector for even a few days. Integrated care is not a new concept and neither is innovation, so how are these two principles coming together to improve patient outcomes in reality?
“There is a vast range of unmet need across the whole health and care sector.”
“There is a vast range of unmet need across the whole health and care sector,” says Aejaz Zahid, Yorkshire & Humber AHSN’s Director for the ICS Innovation Hub at South Yorkshire & Bassetlaw Integrated Care System (SYB ICS). “Much of this is of course clinical, but a huge part of this is more operational, system level needs.
“The ICS needs intelligence on all of this, but then must ascertain how it can use innovation to leverage economies of scale in terms of investing and finding solutions to those problems and challenges. What we are trying to do within the innovation hub is create straightforward and easily accessible processes which enable busy staff working on the ground to regularly bring those challenges and problems to our attention, while enabling ICS leadership to ascertain and prioritise needs which could benefit from a systemwide innovative solution.”
The ICS Innovation Hub is a single point of contact for health and care innovators in the SYB region. The hub works, via the AHSN, to identify and validate market ready innovations and help drive improved health outcomes, clinical processes and patient experience across the SYB health economy. The idea to set up a dedicated innovation hub within an ICS was developed by the Yorkshire & Humber Academic Health Science Network (Yorkshire & Humber AHSN) and has proved a successful model to help spread and adopt innovations at pace and scale. Yorkshire & Humber AHSN also provides innovation support to three different ICSs in the region.
Fostering a culture of innovation
Explaining how the Hub, and by extension, Yorkshire & Humber AHSN are working to cultivate innovation in the region, its Chief Operating Officer and Deputy CEO, Kathy Scott says “it is as much about identifying good practice as it is implementing the ‘shiny stuff’.
“As an AHSN we also have sight of a lot of potential solutions that can address those needs often identified by the innovation hub. So, we are able to nudge the ICS leadership towards potential solutions.
“We can push out new ideas and innovations as much as we like, but if you don’t have that culture of innovation and improvement there, it’s not going to stick.”
“It’s about growing the capability and capacity for change within a locality and for improvement techniques and innovation adaptive solutions to be implemented. Not simply implementing new technology and essentially running away.
“We can push out new ideas and innovations as much as we like,” continues Kathy, “but if you don’t have that culture of innovation and improvement there, it’s not going to stick.”
The ICS’s digital focus has also enabled significant work on pre-emptive care. For example, through the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN’s digital accelerator programme Propel@YH, the AHSN has worked with innovator DigiBete to support the adoption of their “one stop shop” app to help young people living with diabetes manage their treatment.
The app was clinically approved during the height of the pandemic, with extra funding provided from NHS England, and is now being used in 600 services across England. “This is an excellent example of how we can pre-emptively assess unmet need and streamline innovation into the system,” says Kathy.
Innovation as an antidote to health inequality
“Health inequalities are part of our design thinking from the get-go in any project,” says Aejaz, who points to the recent implementation of SkinVision, a tele dermatology app, as an example.
“The app was originally developed in the Netherlands, where predominantly you would have Caucasian skin that the AI would have been trained on,” he explains, “so, from the beginning, we have been mindful to capture more data on how well the app works on other skin types and feed that back to the company to improve their AI algorithms for wider populations.”
The Innovation Hub also works to ensure that implementing digital technology does not exacerbate inequality for less digitally mature users. “If somebody, for example, doesn’t have a smartphone that is able to run that app, there is always the non-digital pathway in parallel. So, it’s never either/or.”
An appetite for risk
“There is always a level of risk aversion when it comes to adopting something new in healthcare,” says Aejaz, “even with evidence backed solutions, we find there’s sometimes a level of reluctance. Staff want to know whether it’s going to work in their local context or not and whether introducing innovation would entail a significant ‘adoption’ curve. Building enthusiasm around a new idea and overcoming hesitancy to innovation is, therefore, central to the role of organisations such as the AHSN and, by extension, ICS innovation hubs.
“Building a culture of innovation is fundamentally about building a culture of increased risk appetite, where failure is most certainly an option.”
“Building a culture of innovation is fundamentally about building a culture of increased risk appetite, where failure is most certainly an option,” Aejaz continues. “We need to create systems which provide innovators with the necessary psychological safety that allows them to experiment.”
To help shift the mindset of NHS staff in favour of innovation, the Innovation Hub established a series of ‘exemplar projects’, designed to erode the fear of failure and capture learnings in the process. For example, for Population Health Management exemplars, one of the priority themes for the ICS, the hub called for providers to submit ideas to the Hub, all framed under high priority population health challenges such as cardiovascular health. Successful applicants with promising ideas received funding in the region of £25,000 as well as co-ordination support from the Hub towards their project.
The programme has enabled frontline innovators and has led to the development of a host of new services incorporating novel technologies, such as virtual wards and remote rehabilitation. The Hub is also working to transform dermatology pathways throughout the SYB region by introducing an app that allows patients to upload images of skin conditions and be processed more efficiently through the system. Funded by an NHSx Digital Partnerships award, this pilot project with Dermatology services in the Barnsley region will test out the use of this AI-enabled app to ascertain how well it can successfully identify low risk skin lesions which can be addressed in primary care. Thereby reducing demand on secondary care and speeding up access for higher risk patients. Each of these projects demonstrate the capacity for transformation when on the ground staff are given the freedom to innovate.
Interestingly, many of the ideas that the Hub works with are non-tech solutions. For example, primary care providers working with local football teams via a 12-week health coaching programme to engage with fans who may be at risk of cardiovascular disease, or introducing Cognitive Behaviour Therapy techniques to patients with severe respiratory conditions to help reduce anxiety when experiencing an episode of breathlessness.
To nurture a mentality more open to change, the Innovation Hub has developed learning networks across South Yorkshire. Through these networks, the Innovation Hub and AHSN teams have been reaching out to key leads from each of the provider organisations who are involved in innovation, improvement or research and invited them to become innovation ambassadors. “These ambassadors have become our eyes and ears on the ground across health providers, where they can start to introduce what we do and also help capture unmet needs from colleagues in their respective organisations,” explains Kathy.
Following in the footsteps of the first innovation hub established by the Yorkshire & Humber AHSN in South Yorkshire, other AHSNs across the country are now looking at setting up innovation hubs within their ICS by bringing leadership together, getting them out of their ‘comfort zone’ and giving them the space to innovate, and hoping to chip away at risk aversion and fear of experimentation. Introducing solutions outside of traditional domains will enable a culture of innovation and improvement. To streamline past bureaucratic and individualistic hurdles, ICS frameworks are key to facilitating transformational change in every region of the country.
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