“To realise potential, there is a need for all partners to align efforts more closely” NHSE board papers on research and innovation

At NHS England’s board meeting on 30 March, discussion focused on innovation and improving research within the NHS.

The meeting placed focus on the work between NHSE and members of the Accelerated Access Collaborative (AAC), with the aim of improving the research and innovation environment in the UK along with improving access to proven technologies.

Five priorities were put in place: embedding research by increasing the speed, scale and diversity of NHS research; improving demand signalling and horizon scanning by clearly identifying and articulating innovation and research needs; supporting NHS partners in uptake of proven innovations by building a pipeline of innovative medicines, medical devices, diagnostics and digital products; building innovation capacity by supporting organisations and workforces to develop, test and implement solutions; and making it easier for innovators to navigate the innovation ecosystem.

The board examined progress made around each of these priorities.

On embedding research, the document highlights how the ‘Be Part of Research’ online service was made available through the NHS App in February this year, enabling people to register their interest to take part in research. The papers also point to a £1.6 million investment made by NHSE in November 2022, to support integrated care systems in increasing diversity in research participation.

With regards to demand signalling and horizon scanning, the board states: “Over the last year, we have published a series of demand signalling reports in collaboration with service users, charities, clinicians, researchers and policy developers. These are being translated into funding and research programmes including through our SBRI programme, with 16 stroke projects receiving £5.9m, five projects in learning disability and autism receiving a total of £470k, and three mental health projects receiving a total of £1.3m.”

Looking next at uptake of proven innovation, the papers highlight how the Rapid Uptake Products programme has supported nearly 850,000 additional patients to access “highly effective treatments and pathways”.

The launch of the MedTech Funding Mandate (MTFM) is also noted to have “signalled a change in approach”, with four technologies selected for inclusion from 2021/22, and a further four in 2022/23. “In this period an estimated 13,500 patients have benefited from access to these innovative technologies,” the papers state, and as of 2022/23, 94 percent of eligible sites are in the process of implementing or have adopted an MTFM product.

Still on the subject of improving uptake, the document adds that NHSE recently announced the winners of the third round in the AI in Health and Care Awards.

On building innovation capacity, the board states that the seventh cohort of the Clinical Entrepreneur Programme was launched in February this year, with over 1,000 staff now supported through the programme.

Finally, looking at innovator support, NHSE states that they have publicly launched the NHS Innovation Service to provide a ‘front door’ for innovators to get the support they need. In addition, the papers note that there has been a boost to innovative vaccine research in England “following historic agreement between the UK government and BioNTech. The partnership will accelerate trials into vaccines for cancer and wider diseases, meaning cancer patients in England will get early access to trials exploring personalised mRNA therapies.”

The papers note that the NHSE will “continue to orientate its work around the delivery” of the priorities. “But to realise potential of our innovation work,” the document continues, “there is a need for all partners in the life sciences ecosystem to align efforts more closely.”

Developing a blueprint for a strong life sciences ecosystem

To support further work around these priorities, the chief executive of Cambridge University Hospitals has been asked to work with the NHSE Innovation, Research and Life Sciences (IRLS) team to develop a blueprint for how the NHS can best support and benefit from a strong life sciences ecosystem. The blueprint is to be developed through engagement with partners, local systems, industry and research charities.

At a local and regional level, this work will seek to identify how to mobilise key research, clinical and operational networks to support pipeline development; how to build on learnings from COVID with regards to empowering teams and encouraging partnerships; how to bring local decision-makers and users of innovation into national prioritisation, planning and decisions about innovation and research; and how to identify and mobilise key centres to support real world evaluation and learn from existing programmes.

At a national level, NHSE is to explore how to set up the national operating model to support this local innovation ecosystem. This will include exploring how NHS decision-making on innovation can be best aligned; how to build on best practice with regards to preparing for implementation of new technologies; how accountability, leadership and governance can support transformation; how data can be used to understand adoption of technologies and support decision-making; and how national support and award programmes can incentivise local activity.

The board states that work is already underway to review the role of the 15 Academic Health and Science Networks ahead of their new potential license period; the review is to ensure that AHSNs are focused on support national and local NHS priorities alongside supporting innovators, and also ensure that they are effective in delivering their services in order to enable innovative adoption.

“The innovation ecosystem is incredibly complex, with multiple initiatives, organisation and a wide range of localised networks and cultures, and resolving this cannot solely be achieved by NHS action,” the papers add. “The review will therefore prioritise wide engagement and achieving consensus and buy in from key partners.”

It is expected that the review will deliver a long-term blueprint for how the NHS can work as an innovation partner. In addition, it will deliver learning from a set of immediate actions focused on the key priorities listed above.