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Darzi calls on nurses to lead NHS innovation

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Nursing’s ‘tremendous appetite for innovation’ must be harnessed to improve patient care and stave off the impact of tighter NHS spending, according to health minister Lord Darzi.

The minister was speaking to Nursing Times in advance of this week’s NHS Innovation Week – which seeks to stimulate a new ‘mindset’ among health service staff, encouraging them to develop and adopt advances in patient care.

Lord Darzi has led the drive to give quality of care a more prominent place within NHS priorities. Innovation, he said, was crucial in making this aspiration a reality and nurses could lead the way.

‘In my experience nurses have a tremendous appetite for innovation,’ he said. ‘There’s less conservatism in the nursing community than there is in the medical community.’

However, he added that nurses often lacked the confidence to come forward with ideas and that the ‘environment’ of the organisations in which some of them worked would have to become more supportive. This, he suggested, would involve breaking down boundaries between professions to create closer teamworking.

But Lord Darzi said he believed some nurses were already in the vanguard of adopting and promoting new ideas. He cited the use of technology to manage heart failure patients in the community and the profession’s ‘leadership’ role in combating health care-associated infections.

He said nurses also had ‘a major role to play in invention’. Nurses were well placed to identify areas where innovation was needed because they were among those ‘closest to the patient’, he said. However, he added that nurses themselves ‘could play a significant part’ in invention itself if they had the right skills.

With this in mind, an Innovation Fund, which staff can bid for to develop new ideas, is being launched as part of the Innovation Week. Each strategic health authority will receive £2m this year and £5m for the four years after that.

Lord Darzi said he was very keen to stress the innovation fund was designed to get NHS staff to think about how they should spend the entire £109bn NHS budget ‘more innovatively’. The minister said his discussions with NHS staff had convinced him that ‘a very small amount of money’ well spent could transform a ‘whole pathway’.

Lord Darzi claimed there were ‘significantly more opportunities for innovation in primary and community care than in the hospital sector’, as advances here could produce an earlier and therefore greater impact on people’s health. He added the expanding role of the practice nurse was an ‘exemplar’ for the introduction of new ideas into primary care.

He acknowledged that less progress had been made in community nursing and that ‘a number of issues’, including the ‘competency’ of community nursing needed to be addressed.

Asked whether he was concerned a future squeeze on public spending indicated in last week’s budget would undermine the innovation drive, he said: ‘The only way we’re going to meet the challenges of a strained economy is by innovation and by improving quality.’

Warning that the NHS can no longer keep ‘throwing money at things’, he said innovation should also focus on what the NHS should stop doing. ‘When you introduce innovative ideas, you also need to start thinking about how you decommission some ideas that are well past their sell-by-date,’ he said.

Lord Darzi added: ‘The challenges facing the NHS over the next decade are the ageing population, long-term conditions and life-style disease.’

He also indentified better integration of primary and acute care as a key challenge and stressed that innovation included ‘management, service design and culture change’, as well as the invention of equipment or new treatments.

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