At a challenging time for NHS Scotland, striking the right balance between longer-term investment in innovation and ensuring current delivery of services is undoubtedly tricky – but it can be achieved.

Of course, never has the health service needed innovation so much and yet had so little resource to invest in it, with staff and services stretched.

The recent FREOPP World Index of Healthcare Innovation report evidenced this. Its assessment of healthcare performance in the modern world ranked the UK health system poorly in terms of financial sustainability but noted a more positive picture for science and technology, according to the World Index of Healthcare Innovation. Therein lies part of the opportunity – by playing to our strengths and maximising the skills, assets, and talent we have here in Scotland. 

Indeed, to enable recovery, it is vital that the NHS looks beyond the immediate future to an ambitious long-term, coordinated plan that highlights the importance of innovation and draws upon varied expertise throughout the healthcare system.

Essential to this is embedding the seeds of tomorrow’s most promising innovations, with a clear view as to how they will pay off in years to come. 

Of course, there will be risk involved in that enterprise, and the wins don’t always come quickly, but successfully anticipating what is to come in healthcare through stringent analysis, preparing the foundations for those breakthroughs to be embedded, and importantly ensuring the workforce is part of this journey, is an important step towards a more efficient NHS.

All of this needs to be part of a collective Scottish effort, with all pushing towards a more cohesive, coordinated model with both new and existing solutions working in tandem and Scotland’s research and innovation capabilities coming fully to the fore.

Too often, innovation is narrowly considered to be sweeping technological breakthroughs. That can certainly be part of the equation, but it does not represent the full picture. Instead, Scotland’s focus should build more on multi-partner collaboration – where we can maximise our talent and resources by being absolutely clear on what knowledge, expertise and skills partners can bring to the table to accelerate the efforts of the nation. 

I believe a two-fold strategy is needed to realise a full system change. 

On one hand, improving and maintaining sustainability of services in the present through better use of existing technology or process improvements; on the other, matching that in the long-term by prioritising meaningful collective discussion on what will really and feasibly make for significant change in the pursuit of modernising our NHS.

First Minister Humza Yousaf recently told business leaders that Scotland’s success in the push towards net zero and realising its economic opportunities will depend on the country’s ability to innovate.

That equally applies to the NHS as it strives for a net zero health service by 2040 and is part of a current innovation call from our team at InnoScot Health – encouraging sustainable, forward-thinking ideas from health and social care professionals that can help support NHS Scotland to adapt, develop and strengthen in response to climate change.

Part of this means NHS Scotland must also determine what it defines as true value in health and social care, the level of investment it would hope to make in innovation benefits, and under what conditions it could make that significant budgetary allocation.

Funding bodies such as Innovate UK, CanDo Innovation, the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), the Medical Research Council (MRC), alongside funding competitions, the charitable sector, and venture capital could help to maximise and leverage those NHS resources. However, there also has to be acknowledgement that we collectively need to get better at applying for such awards given that application processes can be very competitive and that the work involved in pulling together applications is not to be underestimated.

Therefore, there needs to be heightened sharing of knowledge on how best to tap into those funding streams or simply how to allocate more time towards doing it more efficiently.

Other types of assistance should go beyond funding, and ensure we cultivate and optimise ideas originating within the healthcare system. Taking great ideas, supporting their growth through the dedicated application of expertise in areas such as rapid evaluation, intellectual property protection, medical device regulation, development, and commercialisation is the role of InnoScot Health. 

We have been working in partnership with NHS Scotland for over 20 years, providing a one-stop shop for burgeoning health and social care innovators. We also recognise the hurdles that can be faced in bringing new innovations to the market. Funding is one, so we work with innovators to identify appropriate funding streams, support the bid writing, and identify relevant partners. 

Some grants will look for partner organisations, so that could mean the NHS pairing with industry or academia and then holding the grant. We can support this process and ease the time pressures on busy innovators. 

It is clear that innovation is a multi-stakeholder effort and not always a quick win. It must be carefully developed and correctly implemented as part of a system wide ‘Once for Scotland’ push in order to gain best return on investment. That means all organisations – including ourselves – being open to, and encouraging of, working collaboratively with anyone across the country and at any level.

The major challenge is therefore not necessarily in how quickly innovation can be adopted, but in working together with greater strategic direction to ascertain the true value in any given innovation – and making a judgement on whether the support on offer matches that challenge.

An exciting healthcare future still lies in wait, but greater time must be afforded to its realisation.