National Institute for Health and Care Research
Bringing hope to people waiting for new life-saving medicines and care
New medicines and care approaches can transform and save lives – so the faster they move from research into clinical practice, the better. The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) had identified an opportunity to speed up research dramatically. We partnered with the organisation to prepare for a digital and agile transformation with the potential to save years from the wait for new medicines.
Reimagining the possibilities for the pace of medical research
The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) is the research arm of the NHS in England, developing innovative medicines and new care treatments to improve health and save lives. It also aims to make the UK a leading research hub and a more attractive place for a research career.
The research process can be long, complex, and involves manual, paper-based processes. With six different organisations working together under the NIHR umbrella with oversight from the Department of Health & Social Care, it can take up to 17 years to bring a new medicine or care approach into clinical practice.
The rapid development of COVID-19 vaccines, approved for use in little more than nine months, prompted a dramatic rethink of what is possible. For the NIHR, it highlighted the opportunity to accelerate the pace of research and make new medicines available faster. The key was to pair the principles of organisational agility with digital transformation to speed up the time to deliver research.
Creating the conditions for success
Our partnership with the NIHR spans more than a decade, so we were ideally placed to take on this challenge. They knew of our track record of realising transformation across complex, public-sector organisations and that we could bring valuable insights into how to build agile organisations. Our expertise in digital strategy, service design, digital transformation, and organisational agility were all key capabilities for this challenge.
The first goal was to build genuine and unanimous top-team commitment to the mission. “Stakeholder organisations were, understandably, focused on their own priorities,” explained PA’s Agile expert, Sahil Shah. He continued, “The bigger ambition – to bring new medicines into clinical practice faster – was not being realised.”
To create a strategy that would unite the various groups within NIHR, we held over 60 workshops, soliciting ideas and eventually agreeing a transformation strategy and governance framework that set out how NIHR would deliver it. We also ran in-person events with NIHR to cement its new approach and unify its leaders behind a joint vision – the first ever for the NIHR and its stakeholder organisations, and an important breakthrough.
We also introduced pan-NIHR governance forums to maintain consistency, leverage opportunities, and maintain buy in from across the organisation. These forums included the Digital, Data, and Technology Board, the Technical Design Authority, the Service Design Forum, and the NIHR Delivery Forum.
With a focus on the customer and designing for simplicity, we began engaging stakeholders in developing the seamless digital journeys that will run across the NIHR in future. These journeys, allied with agile techniques, will get the research process running faster. At break-out sessions to kick-start development, we gathered over 850 pieces of feedback across our five defined user journeys.
Over the following months, we kept up engagement, shaping each iteration of proposed new services to reflect user feedback. “To embed change, it was vital to ensure users’ needs were heard and understood,” says Shah. “By demonstrating progress and showing how services would deliver value fast, we kept users motivated.”
Anticipating the impact
As the NIHR embraces agile thinking and digital transformation, the future holds exciting possibilities for the organisation and patients alike. Simplifying and automating the researcher journey has the potential to dramatically reduce the time it takes to do research and engage more people to take part. In addition, modern digital services will make the NIHR a more attractive place for a research career, bringing the best brains to the challenge of developing new medicines and treatments for the NHS.
Seamless journeys will make it easier for researchers to conduct studies for the public to engage with them. It will also be easier for the public to sign up for trials, helping expand health and care research to a wider and more diverse population.
Ultimately, the big winners will be the people waiting for new medicines and treatments. Through its transformation, the NIHR aims to improve the health and wealth of the nation.