When I signed up to the NHS European Office’s academic health science networks (AHSNs) study tour to Odense in Denmark, I had only just mastered putting the ‘H’ before the ‘S’ in AHSN! In the event, it was a great opportunity to better understand the agenda of those creating AHSNs and to contribute a different perspective to their future design.
The common challenges of growing demand and a stagnant economy face the entire developed world, but in Denmark, they are compounded by the net emigration of people with key skills on which to grow the economy. As a result, they have been giving very careful thought to how best they can develop a systematic approach to innovation, health and wealth.
These drivers set them on a path in pursuit of ‘welfare technology’ – a range of interventions that provide value in meeting the collective challenge of health improvement and economic growth, all within the bounds of qualified demand.
Through a partnership approach between local government, health, industry and users, they share knowledge in an innovative, interactive ‘Living-Lab’, creating new ideas for processes or products designed to meet the health needs of their communities. The tone is open-minded, co-creative and, as we discovered, playful.
But behind this lies a serious objective; to create opportunities for the generation of economic value through greater productivity or export. Analysis of the effectiveness of new products is supported by a close interface between industry academia, with an extensive research programme supporting innovation in welfare technology at Odense University Hospital.
The discipline stems from a focus on qualified demand. This ensures that they start with real problems and then look for the opportunity to create tangible value to their community. The process is open to all and knowledge is both shared and available to use freely in any subsequent commercial development. This unites them around a common purpose of health, wealth and innovation.
This very public public-private partnership extends beyond the development of new ideas to challenge the very nature of the relationship between local government and the individual citizen.
In the municipality of Odense, they are working to maximise the mobilisation of ageing citizens, seeking to provide them with an increased sense of self-mastery, greater freedom and more privacy, even as their independence wanes. All of this is founded on their vision: ‘To play is to live’.
They are seeking to free citizens from state control through the introduction of technology, such as:
- Robotic vacuum cleaners designed to clean your home and reduce the need for a physical carer.
- Smartphones to support people with early dementia in carrying out daily living tasks on their own.
- A projector that displays a message on the front door of someone with dementia from their favourite carer. It serves to guide them back to bed – and ultimately better health – when they are about to leave their home in the middle of the night.
All of these technologies are being made readily available for citizens to buy, while ensuring benefits are available to those on the lowest incomes.
Denmark has some of the highest happiness levels in the world, with one of the smallest gaps between the very poor and the very rich. They do not believe that this is a coincidence.
The courage of local politicians in introducing this approach of cooperation, early intervention and reablement should not be underestimated. It is testing the very nature of the relationship between them and their electorate, as they move from very high levels of public sector employment to greater public-private partnership. Their commitment to create a platform for innovation in cooperation with users and citizens seems completely genuine and unwavering.
So what does this all mean for AHSNs?
Denmark still has a way to go before it realises the benefit it seeks from its approach to innovation. However, there do seem to be some core principles that we would be wise to consider as we follow in their wake.
AHSNs’ first priorities must be to deliver better economic prospects and better health and social care practice to their regional populations. They share this population responsibility with clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and local authorities (LAs). This could form a powerful alliance with a real sense of working with and on behalf of a defined community as collectively, they are responsible for providing value to their communities in both health and economic terms.
It is imperative that their common purpose is founded on meeting qualified demand by creating new welfare technology that meets both the population’s health needs and the need for growth with new business and jobs in stagnant regional economies.
In order to do this, AHSNs will need to work closely in partnership with CCGs, LAs, local industry and the local community. They will need to create a platform for innovation in cooperation with the public and patients. This needs to be based on the free exchange of knowledge in the pursuit of new ideas that enhance the commissioning, providing and engagement practices within our care system.
All this requires that the basis on which they are determined to be a success is aligned with their partners around a collective responsibility for delivering the best possible health outcomes from the finite resources available.
Are we ready to play?
Dr Johnny Marshall is director of policy at the NHS Confederation
The Danish approach to innovation will be explored at an NHS European Office session at the NHS Confederation annual conference and exhibition, 5 to 7 June in Liverpool:
Lessons from Europe – the Danish approach to whole-system innovation
The region of Southern Denmark has successfully implemented a public-private collaboration between purchasers, hospitals, universities, local authorities and businesses to deliver innovation and product development in healthcare, homecare and social services. This session – at 1 pm on 7 June – will look at how the partners successfully engage across sectors to develop, test and implement new products, methods and systems. Lunch and refreshments will be served. Book your place.
The conference will also feature other sessions dedicated to the role AHSNs have in making innovation, health and wealth work. Register now.
Follow the conference on twitter @NHSC_Conference #NHSConfed13