A new era of digital leadership at Sussex Partnership

Samantha Allen profile picture

08 July 2020

Samantha Allen
Chief Executive
Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust


Beth Lawton profile picture

Beth Lawton
Chief digital information officer
Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust


As difficult as these last few months have been for the local communities we serve, they have shown the NHS at its best. Our staff have been incredible.

This has been a pandemic the likes of which the NHS has never faced before. From acute to mental health services, we have had to rethink how we deliver services, not only to treat COVID-19 patients, but also to keep other patients, service users, families / carers and our staff safe.

At Sussex Partnership, we placed digital at the centre of our response and focused on rolling out new technologies at speed and at scale. We have made pragmatic and proportionate decisions, but with a focus on compassion and wellbeing. Digital has widened our reach and contact into our communities at a time when the need for human contact and relationships is more important than ever.  

 

What's changed?

We've achieved a lot in a short space of time. Over 1,000 of our clinicians have been involved in providing 16,000 online consultations over the last three months. The introduction of video consultations has enabled clinicians to carry out their ward rounds remotely, it means staff can access training from home, and most importantly our staff can deliver care safely. 

At the same time, we've introduced a new webinar programme to keep staff engaged and informed. We have used our digital platforms to provide information to the public about mental health, wellbeing and resilience during COVID-19. We have also developed a new staff app so people can access payslips, training opportunities and the latest news from their phones.

At Sussex Partnership, we placed digital at the centre of our response and focused on rolling out new technologies at speed and at scale.

Data has underpinned our rollout and implementation. Using data visualization tools, data is providing us with invaluable information about adoption and user experience. This is going to prove crucial in enabling the board to understand what is working and what isn’t - making our future strategy and delivery truly data driven.

 

How have we done it?

We can’t pretend our success has happened over night. At Sussex we laid the foundations for digital over some years.

We appointed Beth, as chief digital information officer, to the board three years ago, which underlined the board’s recognition that digital is fundamental to our wider strategy. And this year, digital was one of our four breakthrough objectives. A key part of the approach of Beth and her team is the way they work with our clinicians and other staff to understand how digital can help us improve patient care. It’s a world away from the old fashioned approach of IT staff developing digital solutions in a dark room and then simply telling people to use them.

We have increased our investment in digital: in our infrastructure, capabilities and our people. Global digital exemplar fast follower funding has undoubtedly helped, but it has been matched with a commitment from the board to apply a wider lens to benefits realisation. It means we can deliver more benefits to our patients and service users over a longer period of time.

This approach has allowed the digital directorate to let go of the “quest for perfection”. Instead, it thinks in terms of a minimum viable product. This is a useful habit to have broken and supports more agile delivery.

While we had laid much of the groundwork, COVID-19 has accelerated this way of working. It has provided the organisation with a sense of urgency. For example, prior to the pandemic, clinical adoption of our video consultation tool was variable. Sometimes you need a jolt to understand there are different ways of doing things.

We have also been able to cast away some “unnecessaries”, including the submission of certain reports and removing a few layers of administration. This has reduced the burden on our staff. It won’t be sustainable to keep all of these changes in the long term, however before we bring anything back, we need to ask ourselves what value it provides.

During the crisis digital has been at the heart of our gold and silver command structures. Because of the need for focused decision making and rapid action, it’s fair to say we have increased our tolerance of risk. This approach isn’t sustainable in the long term either, but we must look at what behaviours and learnings we can replicate when we go back to our traditional command structures.

 

What have we learned?

Throughout the pandemic we have been learning and evaluating our work as we go. After the first phase of our response, we set up a learning from COVID-19 project. A diverse team, led by our director of research and development, looked at how patients, service users, carers and staff have experienced our new ways of working. It is important that the board listens to these different perspectives and understands the impact of the changes we have made as a trust. In just a few days, over 1,000 staff responded to an online survey about learning from COVID-19, which shows there is real appetite to capture what has worked well and to keep hold off this.

We recognise that not everything is suitable for digital delivery. And we are constantly reviewing what we want to keep, what we need to advance, and what we need to stop.

We recognise that not everything is suitable for digital delivery. And we are constantly reviewing what we want to keep, what we need to advance, and what we need to stop. We have had some service user involvement in the design of digital services, but we want more feedback and more involvement over the coming months.

 

Where next?

As a board, we are mindful of the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of our staff. We need to support the psychological wellbeing of those who have  worked so tirelessly during this crisis, particularly those who may be at risk of developing symptoms of trauma.

But we also need to find new ways to meet the growing mental health needs of our communities. COVID-19 has underlined how important our digital strategy will be in rising to this challenge.

We think we can be more ambitious: if we can retain our boldness, we have a real opportunity to use digital to transform services and deliver real benefits for our patients, services users, families, carers and staff. The launch of NHS Providers’ Digital Boards programme is therefore very timely. We look forward to sharing our own experience with other board leaders and we welcome the opportunity to learn from the rest of the sector.

Our mantra throughout these last few months has been for people to 'stay safe, keep connected and be kind'. Digital is at the very heart of how we do this.

This was first published in the HSJ.

About the authors

Samantha Allen profile picture

Samantha Allen
Chief Executive

Sam Allen became chief executive of Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust in March 2017. She started work in the NHS in 1996 and has a background both in the operational management and leadership of mental health services and health and social care commissioning. Sam also gained valuable experience working with an international healthcare organisation in the private sector. An important aspect of her work is developing effective partnerships with experts by experience, families and carers, clinicians, support staff and partner organisations, to ensure efficient clinical care and improve experience and outcomes. Sam is a Chartered Manager, Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute and holds an MBA from Aston Business School.as

Beth Lawton profile picture

Beth Lawton
Chief digital information officer

Beth joined the trust in January 2018 after working in a variety of public and third sector organisations. Beth has a particular interest in using technology to transform business services and the customer experience, and was appointed Member of the Royal Victorian Order, in 2007 in recognition of her transformative work at the Royal Household. Beth was a board apprentice at Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, and was previously a Trustee of Together, a mental health charity.

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