Content, Health Tech Trends

Health Tech Trends Series 2022 part one: what makes a great digital champion?

It’s time for the first instalment of our Health Tech Trends Series 2022, in which we consider the latest topical issues and questions across the industry and ask experts from the sector for their perspectives and opinions.

Our first foray into 2022’s trends takes us towards the role of a ‘digital champion’ – a phrase used to describe staff who are trained to support digital work within the NHS, or similar organisations.

The title can appear as somewhat of a buzzword at the moment – but its frequency reflects the importance of the role in helping unleash new technologies or ways of working, during a period of transformation in which the NHS had advanced at scale with new implementations and roll-outs in data, digital, and beyond.

But what is a digital champion, really? what do they do? how do they do it? and, more importantly, what makes a great one?

At HTN we were prompted to consider the latter question by a combination of research from the University of Melbourne’s Centre for Digital Transformation of Health, and the release of Health Education England (HEE)’s latest toolkits to help embed digital skills, confidence and best practice within the health and care workforce.

The latter organisation’s Digital Champions Programme Toolkit (from April 2021) and Digital Champions Toolkit Adult Social Care (released in January 2022) are designed to assist those who can, in turn, then support other learners with their ‘understanding of digital technologies and their confidence and motivation to use them’. Overall, the ultimate goal is to help improve the digital literacy of the workforce and, consequently, the quality of care received by patients.

The most recent toolkit release for adult social care also posed the question, ‘What is a champion?’ – succinctly describing the role as an “individual, usually a volunteer, who promotes a particular topic and shares their knowledge and skills of that subject with colleagues and / or service users.”

Other terms used to describe digital champions in the document include ‘go-to people’, ‘first point-of-contact’ and ‘approachable individuals’ who can ‘share enthusiasm and knowledge of digital’ in an easy-to-understand way, or a ‘colleague or volunteer who likes helping others’ and ‘enjoys solving problems’.

However, it also adds that the chosen digital champions do not necessarily need to be from inside your own organisation – but can instead be external and ‘in the community supporting digital skills from the outside in’.

The toolkit continues its profiling of the role by outlining its three main aims: to empower staff to use digital tools more effectively; increase confidence, understanding and motivation; and increase the overall digital skill pool.

According to HEE, the actual work of a champion can take the form of sharing their work, skills or knowledge through shadowing or observing, buddying, peer-to-peer learning, or through supported self-guided learning or sharing of resources.

Melbourne’s Centre for Digital Transformation of Health, meanwhile, has created a helpful graphic which condensed answers to the question, ‘What does a digital health champion look like?’, based on responses from a selection of fellows.

Some of the most thought-provoking replies that were mapped out by the graphic included a vision of a Digital Champion as someone who:

  • Asks questions, learns and is always curious
  • Makes mistakes and learns from them
  • Is ‘visible and approachable’
  • Is a ‘go-to person for advice’ and an ‘excellent communicator’
  • Can be described as a ‘problem solver’, one who empowers and is also a ‘mentor’
  • Will ‘have impact on and be a source of inspiration for the team’
  • Is a knowledgeable DH [digital health/health tech] technologist
  • Is a ‘creative and innovative user of data’ to ‘drive change and deliver quality healthcare’
  • Can be an ‘ideas incubator for solving the inefficiencies and inequalities in the systems’
  • Brings a culture of embracing change, constantly innovating into the workplace
  • Acts as a ‘path clearer’ and ‘paver’ who ‘creates the pipeline and process for the next wave of ideas’
  • Is an ‘expert’ who can ‘enact change and guide progress on a broad scale’.

These qualities feature a mix of both technical and personal characteristics, suggesting that an ideal ‘digital champion’ would have a sufficient level of expertise in digital, IT and/or data, but that what sets them apart may be their ability to transfer and share that knowledge in a clear and accessible way – so that they also possess the traits of a good teacher.

When we turned to our expert commentators for their thoughts on, and experiences of, what makes a great digital champion, the ideas from Melbourne were somewhat echoed across this side of the globe, by NHS leaders.

“They create a waterfall of learning and knowledge sharing”

Alexis Farrow, Head of Strategy and Transformation at Connected Nottinghamshire, told HTN: “Digital champions are a powerful resource in enabling the spread and uptake of digital, which couldn’t be achieved with traditional training and support. They create a waterfall of learning and knowledge sharing. Digital champions don’t have to be technical in background; the skills and attributes which make a good digital champion are patience, understanding, [being] committed to driving change and communication skills. This is particularly important in community settings, which is why our community and voluntary champions are so essential in addressing barriers to accessing digital within our communities, as they understand the specific challenges that individuals within those communities face.”

As well as bringing crucial local insight and understanding to digital projects, Alexis explained that Connected Nottinghamshire has had success with including digital champions in its work so far, stating: “Digital champions have been an invaluable resource across Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. Across the ICS [Integrated Care System] we have recruited and trained over 50 digital champions for our workforce, in order to support the implementation of digital transformation programmes. The ICS has also worked in partnership with the community and voluntary sector in order to recruit and train digital champions – this has proved vital in addressing digital exclusion and uptake across our communities.”

“Digital champions must come from any and every personal and professional background”

Moving from the East Midlands to Hampshire, where Dr Tamara Everington, a consultant and the Chief Clinical Information Officer for Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, explained how she sees the role of a digital champion – also highlighting the need for specific personal skills over high-level technical traits.

Tamara said: “Being a digital champion isn’t about being a technical wizard – it’s mainly about being a champion of operating in the 80:20 head space (80 per cent of your job time actually doing your job, 20 per cent of the time developing ways of making the same job deliver a better end result). Digital champions will not only seek to improve themselves but also work to improve the digital systems that support change. Highly successful digital champions additionally have the key behavioural trait of being great teamworkers – people who are naturally drawn towards helping improve the performance of the team as a whole. The super successful digital champions are those who can share and explore the story of their team’s digital success with others in a way that brings translatable learning.

“If an organisation wants to succeed through digital champions, these people must come from any and every personal and professional background. This approach will ensure diversity of purpose and intent, giving end solutions which really work for folk on the ground.”

Returning to HEE’s latest resource for adult social care digital champions, the many potential benefits of utilising digital champions are listed as including: illustrating an ‘organisational commitment to understanding the needs and experiences of staff’ and being proactive; providing allies for staff, as embedded champions will know ‘staff and their roles better than anyone’; providing a bridge between leaders and staff to feedback about any challenges; improved staff engagement; taking pressure away from busy managers; sustainable support and an improved culture.

The case for digital champions, it concludes, is strengthened by an estimated 17.1 million – 52 per cent- of people in the UK workforce lacking digital skills in the workplace, according to findings from the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020.

Within this context and against a digital health landscape where national frameworks and strategies are still being shaped, HEE says that local leaders can ‘support the development of digital capabilities while those national capabilities are being worked through’ and ensure that their staff are ‘digitally ready and confident’ by utilising digital champions.

With that in mind, it’s more important than ever to consider what makes a truly great digital champion. It will be interesting to monitor how the role evolves over the next 12 to 24 months, as well as how digital champions are employed by ICSs.

For more content on digital champions, revisit the HTN Now webcast by Henrietta Mbeah-Bankas, Head of Blended Learning and Digital Literacy at Health Education England, which took place last year.