Let's Talk

Graham Walsh, Medical Director at Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network

Welcome back to our podcast HTN Let’s Talk!

In this episode we interview Graham Walsh, Medical Director at Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network. We discuss his current role, his previous experience at Calderdale and Huddersfield, challenges he has faced, what success for digital looks like, and much more.

To start off, Graham spoke about his current role with the AHSN: “I’ve been at the Allied Health Science Network for the past three months, so I’m fairly new to the role. I’m currently learning what the job involves.”

Prior to joining the AHSN, for 12 years Graham worked at Calderdale and Huddersfield Foundation Trust as a knee surgeon. For the past four years, he was the Chief Clinical Information Officer and was “involved in digital transformation at the trust following the digital strategy, and it was doing that work which led me to want to take up the medical director role.”

Digital projects

Talking about digital projects at Calderdale, Graham shared, “I oversaw many projects around digital consent, documentation and introducing our EPR… we had lots of small pockets of digital transformation, whereas the role as Medical Director at the AHSN is much more all embracing.”

The AHSN covers three integrated care boards (ICBs) across Humber, West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire. “My role is about looking at the bigger picture now, looking at how we can bring in innovation and transformation across the whole population, not just health,” he said.

He described how the AHSN is involved in a “huge amount” of projects; they are not always quick fixes or quick wins, but all are designed to improve population health.

His role at Calderdale and Huddersfield

Reflecting on his role at Calderdale and Huddersfield, Graham noted that anyone who is involved in digital transformation “learns a lot quickly”.

He commented that getting hold of shiny tech to bring in can seem like a fantastic idea, “but I think that you learn as you go through the role that shiny tech is not just about the technology itself. You’ve really got to focus on the people, whether that’s the patient or the staff. You may have a good idea on paper, but it has to add value and it has to add worth to both patients and staff.”

As his greatest learning from the role, Graham highlighted how important it is to make sure that there is real world value to what you are bringing in, with this feeding directly into how well the technology is adopted and the the nature of the outcomes and benefits that can be realised at the end of the project. Also, he added, it is important to involve clinical teams and patients in decision-making.

Tackling challenges

The above point around involving people in the digital journey can also be a challenge, Graham pointed out.

“At the end of the day, people in healthcare are conscious that we are looking after patients and we shouldn’t just make change for the sake of change,” he said. “Clinicians can have that mindset and not necessarily want to change, and that can be one of the biggest barriers.”

He emphasised the importance of taking people along the journey with you and showing them the benefits to the technology, with focus on how it will make their life and patient experience better.

“Build the story,” he advised. “A lot of what I do now is storytelling. You paint the picture of why we want to introduce something, you paint the picture of what the benefits are. Take the teams with you and make them want to start using some of this technology because they can see the real benefits.”

It’s good that people have questions, he noted. “They’re not being obstructive, they’re just being cautious because any change you make has an endpoint.”

Plans and aims in his current role

As his current role as the Medical Director at the AHSN is fairly new, “it’s a learning role for me and it’s a learning role for them.”

Since ICBs have been introduced, Graham commented on the change seen across the whole healthcare system. “I see my role as influencing some of that change,” he said, “and bringing clinicians together, bringing them into the conversations about transformation.”

He added that a key aspect of his role is identifying the problems and bringing clinicians into the conversations about how that change can be shaped. That could mean “how we can work with suppliers, with industry, with commerce, with councils, with academia… to find the right solution for the patients and at the same time, bring health networks together.

“It’s a very much an overarching role, but I think it’s a role that hopefully will allow us to make sure that we get those conversations started, whether it’s clinician to clinician or system to system.”

The impact of COVID

Since the pandemic, Graham believes that healthcare has gone through a huge change, highlighting how the pandemic likely drove a “huge amount of transformation” within the NHS.

“Prior to COVID we would approach change and it would be difficult to get things moving, projects would take time,” he said. “When we had COVID there was a need to change, there wasn’t another option, we had to work virtually.” Graham described this as “forced adoption” – “we adopted things really quickly but not necessarily well.”

However, as innovators in healthcare, Graham noted the importance of learning lessons from COVID. Through looking back at how projects and programmes were adapted and adopted quickly, he said, we can bring back some of that transformation drive.

Learning from other industries

On whether or not the NHS takes learnings from other industries, Graham said, “I think, traditionally, yes and no.”

In the NHS, he commented that people can still have a tendency to push paper and unnecessary tasks. “I think we need to move forward and share learnings with our partners, and that’s part of our role as the AHSN – to bring industry into those conversations,” he said.

“Just because it’s not healthcare doesn’t mean to say it’s not relevant. If you look at Amazon’s logistics and everything else attached to Amazon, it’s massive. The cloud services – we could learn a huge amount from them.”

Keeping up-to-date

When asked for tips on keeping yourself updated with changes in the medical and health tech field, Graham laughed. “We just read HTN!”

As the NHS moves into new areas of transformation, he noted that there are lots of resources on the internet that he strives to keep up-to-date with.

“There are lots of conferences and companies that put on events, and  networks for innovation and digital health leaders,” he said. “We have to share knowledge. There is no point in coming out with some fantastic in innovation in one area and not sharing it with colleagues in other areas.”

The AHSN, as an example, has a network of innovation hubs around the country aiming to help people learn from each other and to share knowledge.

“Staying up-to-date is important,” Graham stressed. “You don’t want to miss out on the next big thing.”

Success for digital in the future

“In three or five years’ time, the world is going to be a very different place,” Graham mused.

There are many questions to consider in this area. “Are we all going to be wearing headsets, visiting our doctors from our front rooms?” he asked. “Is that going to be the future?

“I think what is important is that we have a much more consumer-facing healthcare system, where we put the patient at the forefront of healthcare, and not necessarily the clinician or the hospital.”

Many thanks to Graham for sharing his thoughts.