Interview, NP

Interview: Lisa Emery, Chief Transformation, Innovation and Digital Officer at NHS Sussex, on their five-year plan and digital priorities

For our latest interview, we spoke to Lisa Emery from NHS Sussex. Lisa chatted to us about NHS Sussex’s five-year plan, Improving Lives Together, achievements in digital and data, and hopes for the future.

Hi Lisa, tell us about your role and your background

I’m the Chief Transformation, Innovation and Digital Officer at NHS Sussex. My main responsibility is around pulling together our strategic plans to deliver our system priorities in health and care. I’ve also got responsibilities in our digital and data agenda, as well our estates and carbon neutral plans. It’s quite a broad remit, but the real focus at the moment is on that strategy delivery plan for our whole system.

In terms of my background, I started in biomedical science; I used to be a medical microbiologist. I got into information and IT through a set of projects that I worked on in that role, getting involved with lab information systems.

I moved across and stayed in the IT world, though I’ve always been in healthcare. I spent about two and a half years in the Middle East, putting in health systems, IT systems and laboratory information systems, which was amazing and very different. From there, I came back into the National Programme for IT and worked in the London system, putting in electronic patient records in trusts across the capital. After that, I moved into provider organisations so my roles became more strategic and transformational. I was a chief information officer for about 10 years, working in a variety of different locations, from acute hospitals to specialist trusts. I’ve been with NHS Sussex for about six months now.

Achievements in digital and data

I think there are a lot of projects from NHS Sussex that are worth sharing, particularly when you think about the winter pressures that we have been experiencing and continue to experience. The digital teams have been working really closely with other teams on a number of levels. For example, they’ve been working with primary care colleagues, collaborating with GPs to make sure that their systems are joined-up in the places that they need to be, that they have access to transformation and digital resources to help them manage things like remote appointments and text messaging – things that really help interaction with patients.

We’ve done a lot of work on virtual wards, really making sure that we can digitally equip those wards to be successful. Patients need to be able to go home with a monitoring kit that is then connected to their patient record, so that clinicians can manage their ward rounds remotely, actively monitoring their health and care and interacting with patients. That’s been a really big piece of work for the digital team and they are currently doing more work to further join up those systems, so that the virtual care that patients are receiving connects directly into their care records. Clinicians can see that data from wherever they are, and patients can see what’s happening through our patient app, My Health and Care Record, which is integrated into the NHS App.

On that note, we’ve had a real drive through the winter period around adoption of the NHS App and My Health and Care Record, though actually we saw some really good uptake prior to winter too.

Alongside that, we’ve done lots of work with our provider organisations around their electronic health record programmes, putting in connected data systems and secure data environments to support research and development as well as immediate care needs. There’s a lot of digital activity going on across all of our places, across all of our partners.

Improving Lives Together: a five-year plan

We signed off our system-wide health and care strategy in December 2022. It was a huge amount of work and we saw so much engagement throughout the process, with sign-up from all of our partner organisations. We launched it formally at the end of January with a whole stream of fantastic communications including patient stories and clinicians talking about their experiences.

Between now and the end of March, we’re in the process of building a plan to deliver on those ambitions. I’m responsible for pulling the overarching plan together around all of our areas. It covers all of our operational priorities such as waiting times, access to care and GPs and planned care, and also brings in our strategic focus.

We’re focusing on three core areas. The first is workforce – how do we support, grow and maintain our workforce, making NHS Sussex a great place to work? The second is digital and data, looking at how we join up our systems, make sure data is flowing and ensure that people can really interact with their healthcare. We want people to be able to actively participate in their care. That stream of work also focuses on virtual care which is hugely important in terms of how we work operationally. The third aspect of our strategy is around joined-up communities – how do we work as a set of partners in health and care, at our place and community level? We’re talking about geographical communities but also communities of people with particular health conditions or particular inequalities. It’s a big plan, spanning the next five years, and ultimately it looks at how we can deliver the best outcomes for the people of Sussex.

Immediate priorities

Data and digital underpins everything. Connectedness of services is key in terms of really helping both of population and our workforce manage the urgent priorities and the operational pressures that we’re seeing. We’re focusing on improving the systems that people are working, the way that our workforces can access records and any data that they need, so that they can improve immediate care.

We’re also looking at ways in which we can influence the agenda around prevention and reducing health inequalities. Part of that work includes addressing digital exclusion – how do we think about designing systems with our population? Co-design needs to be at the heart of everything we do. We need to make sure that we’re looking at the gaps where people don’t have access to digital tools, that we don’t leave anyone behind. If we don’t do that work well in a co-design way, we risk broadening health inequalities. So we’ve got to really address that and work with our clinical teams to ensure that the digital tools we put in place take account of that.

We’ve used the ‘digitise, connect, transform’ framework, so initially there will be a lot of work going into ensuring that we have digital foundations in place, with all of our organisations reaching a minimal level of connectedness. Then it’s a question of working to connect them and looking at our data systems, improving how clinicians can access data and use it. After that we’ll be focusing on the transformational work, which is where we’ll start putting work in place to immediately alleviate operational pressures.

From there, we’ll start looking into innovation for the future. How can we do things differently? We want to undertake work that lets us give time back to care and really improve the care experience for our population in Sussex.

What are you most excited about?

I get excited about the work that we can do collectively to make people’s care experience more joined up. It sounds very simple but it’s actually quite complex. It’s the work around bringing our partners together, like our social care colleagues, the voluntary sector, the emergency services.

This work can really change the experience for our workforce, who can really struggle with the disjointedness of systems. It’s about making their working life much better and giving them time back to interact with people. For the people accessing our services, it’s about looking for ways to break down barriers and provide a more seamless experience.

Looking to the future, there’s definitely a lot of exciting work to come with things like virtual care and augmented intelligence. But I think there’s a job of work for us to do first, to really help our workforce and our population experience care in a different way. That needs to be our immediate priority.

There’s real opportunity with integrated care systems – I’ve seen it already in my time here, with digital colleagues coming together across Sussex. There’s a massive enthusiasm, ambition and appetite to do things differently. One of the key things we can do through working together as a system is look at where we’ve got real best practice and pockets of excellence and bring them together. We can become more than the sum of our parts. I’m excited about what we can do collectively that will make a difference, and I think the creation of ICSs can drive that.

Thoughts for the future

IT does tend to get quite siloed, and it’s important that we change that. When we’re thinking about designing our pathways or thinking about how we deliver services, we need to make sure that we are bringing digital and data teams and clinical digital leads into the room right from the start. That requires a cultural shift – it is happening, but I think we need to do more of it.

The other thing I think we need to improve on is that commitment of co-design – it absolutely has to be a priority. Are we designing services with people, for people? It’s increasingly important that we include transformation and digital skillsets into those conversations.

A lot of this isn’t about the technology. It’s something that you can say but you have to really mean and embed in your work. Most of this is about people and relationships and the way that you commit to doing something differently. That’s not a challenge unique to digital and data, but I think it has been more of a challenge in this area as digital and data has traditionally been seen as a stand-alone project. COVID certainly turned that on its head – what would we have done without being able to connect to each other virtually? We know we can ramp up, we know we can innovate, we know we can do things at speed. What are we doing to build on changes that we had to implement during a very difficult time? We need to turn it into something with more longevity, with more transformational value.

I find it fascinating that we tend to think about digital differently in our home lives, as opposed to digital in healthcare. We don’t think anything of remote control of heating devices in our home, for example, but for some reason there’s a cultural gap when it comes to healthcare, a disconnect in our sense of how digital tools can assist us in this area. We need to turn that around, which is an interesting challenge. A big part of that is clinical leadership; the CIO roles are definitely important, but having clinicians and populations involved to drive design and decision-making is key. We need digital teams reacting to those people, rather than the other way round.