10 quick reflections on...

Annual conference and exhibition 2019

NHS Providers had a busy two days earlier this month, welcoming delegates, speakers, exhibitors and stakeholders from across the country to our biggest conference and exhibition yet.

Here are my 10 reflections on what happened:


  1. Centre stage for mental health
    We deliberately put mental health at the heart of our conference this year. The gap between demand and what trusts can deliver is growing. We're seeing 18% more mental health out of area placements than a year ago and, despite the extra investment and activity, we're still only treating 30% of children and young people with mental health needs. On the main stage, Isabel Hardman, assistant editor, The Spectator, and Sue Baker OBE, global director, Time to Change, took part in a candid, honest and important discussion on mental health prevention. Their willingness to share their experiences with their own mental health was inspiring. Both speakers stressed the role for employers in supporting their staff to talk about mental health, making support readily available and up skilling managers to spot potential issues early and signpost staff towards support. We are so grateful for their courage, openness and eloquence.

    In his excellent after-dinner speech, Alastair Campbell also spoke candidly about his own mental health. He was passionate that we must continue to work towards parity in how we all treat mental and physical health, as well as continuing to reduce the stigma around mental ill health - particularly in the workplace. Alastair also shared the story of an NHS nurse he'd met with depression, who felt she couldn’t tell her employer of her illness because she couldn't be sure of what the consequences would be. A pin drop moment. This encapsulates a great challenge for us all as leaders to ensure this doesn't happen in our organisations.

    I'm proud that the big theme of #NHSP19 has been the need to think carefully and deeply about how we support people we work with who have mental ill health, and what our own organisations can do. There is no good health without good mental health.

  2. Honesty, realism and transparency about how much the NHS can deliver
    On day one, we published our flagship report on the overall state of the provider sector, looking at how trusts are performing and the challenges they face in terms of quality, finances, workforce and transformation. It's an excellent, objective, evidence-based, report. The key messages are that the NHS continues to improve and deliver great care for most patients, despite enormous pressure. There is a lot to do – recover performance, return to surplus, and fill 100,000 workforce vacancies. We need realism about how quickly this can be done, and the scale of the challenges the NHS faces. Unsurprising, then, that 91% of trust leaders said, in the report, we need more public debate about the future direction of the NHS. We're calling for an open and informed public debate that sets out what the NHS can be realistically expected to deliver, and the level of investment that will be needed to ensure its sustainability.

  3. Celebrating and promoting success
    Despite the challenging context, we need to promote and celebrate the fact that trusts continue to deliver outstanding patient care. Our Provider showcase displayed innovative work from 12 of our members and demonstrated how trusts are embracing new opportunities to deliver high-quality care to patients and service users. We also launched the first report in our series Providers deliver, focusing on the way that trusts are systematically improving service quality. We know trusts should be held accountable when they fall short, but we should also celebrate their successes and promote understanding of approaches and ideas that could benefit patients across the NHS.

  4. The importance of shifting culture and behaviour
    Strong leadership and an engaging, inclusive culture is vital for the success of the NHS. Sir David Behan, chair, Health Education England, Baroness Dido Harding, chair, NHS Improvement, Prerana Issar, chief people officer for NHS England and NHS Improvement and Ian Trenholm, chief executive, Care Quality Commission, took part in our panel session on culture. They all stressed that while there are organisations within the NHS that already have a fantastic culture, we need to ensure this becomes the rule rather than the exception. There is still work to do to build trust between national bodies and trusts, and explicitly agreeing what good culture looks like – particularly how we hold each other to account when things go wrong. Ian Trenholm made the point that often, when we see good leadership, we also see a willingness to admit when things go wrong - and that willingness to say "maybe I didn't get that right" can go a long way to build a good culture in the long term. But leaders need the right support and training to do this. Prerana made the excellent point that culture cannot just flourish on the idea that staff must 'speak up'. We also must ensure our leaders are 'listening up' – an important and powerful distinction.

  5. Clarity on capital
    In our national #RebuildOurNHS campaign, we have been calling for a properly-funded and well-designed system of capital funding, so it was good to hear Matt Hancock, in his plenary address, commit to delivering some key planks of the campaign - including a defined multiyear capital settlement, confirmed annually, and a much simpler and faster capital control and prioritisation process. The health and social care secretary said that this was one of three pillars in his vision for the NHS, alongside the implementation of the long term plan and a commitment to update outdated technology by setting up the right architecture with common standards.

  6. Trusts show Matt Hancock their innovative work
    As well as appearing on the main stage, the secretary of state joined members in our Provider showcase area to meet staff from the 12 NHS trusts who were sharing their examples of innovation and transformation with our delegates. He threw himself right into the heart of things, proving a willing volunteer for South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust's Raizer lifting chair - demonstrating how their volunteer community responders reduce response times for those who have experienced a non-injury fall, thereby improving availability for frontline resources to attend to other critically ill and injured patients. It was a welcome bonus for exhibitors at the showcase to be able to speak to him directly about the important work they're doing.

  7. A welcome session from Simon Stevens
    I had a lot of comments from delegates who said they really welcomed the different tone to Simon Stevens' speech this year. He shared three personal stories at the end of his address that I think created a deeper, richer and more personal connection than before. We also really welcomed his personal commitment to the need for a new culture and the importance of how NHS England and NHS Improvement behave. There may not have been lots of new, eye-catching policy announcements but many delegates said they appreciated this different approach.

  8. The importance of boards and governance
    We'll be saying a fond farewell to our chair, Dame Gill Morgan, at the end of this year. Gill opened day two of the conference with a fantastic session reflecting on her career in medicine, public health and national policy roles. She also talked about the incredible advances in treatment that have been made throughout the course of her career. One of the lessons she emphasised was the importance of trust boards, which she described as "the glue running through the organisation". Good boards know they are accountable, they respect the people they work with and they are humble enough to know they will sometimes get things wrong but can use that as an opportunity to improve.

  9. Transforming patient care through digitalisation 
    Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, announced £200m was being released through the provider digitisation programme in our panel session on transforming patient care – a welcome commitment. He also repeated his vow to address the asymmetry between trusts and digital suppliers through the creation of a new strategic commercial team, which will allow the sharing of knowledge and best practice within the sector. It was also good to see Matthew highlight the role of nurses, emphasising the vital role they play in making transformation work. He announced that a chief nursing officer will be hired as part of NHSX's senior team.

  10. Our biggest conference ever
    And finally, a huge thank you to all of those who attended our conference – we know that time out of the office can often be difficult to justify. But we are delighted that this year was our biggest conference to date, with over 730 delegates on site, 77 speakers and 23 sessions over the course of the two days. Thank you for taking the time to attend - we hope this was a valuable and insightful event for you. Our conference may only be once a year, but we run free networks for members throughout the year, specifically designed to help you get the information, guidance and inspiration you need. We also run two conferences in the summer in central London – in 2020 we’ll again be hosting our Governor focus conference, as well as a our one-day Governance conference, the only kind in the sector.

You can find more information on all of our networking, support and training events, on our events page. We look forward to seeing you soon.