During the hard days of the pandemic, many people have found it restorative to look for ‘green shoots’ in their surroundings, both literal and more metaphorical. In the context of health, we might see such green shoots in the impressive COVID-19 vaccination programme and the discovery of innovative ways to provide high-quality care – the rapid rollout of the COVID Oximetry @home and COVID virtual ward programmes, for example. These are just some of many green shoots that provide hope for the future amid the devastating impact of COVID-19 on lives and livelihoods.

Every gardener knows that green shoots only grow in fertile ground which provides all the required nutrients. We believe this applies in exactly the same way to health care innovation – without the right conditions for nourishment and growth, even the most promising innovation is likely to wither. And it’s for this reason that we’re excited about the launch of four brand new innovation hubs, funded by the Health Foundation’s Adopting Innovation programme.

The mission of each hub is to cultivate an environment in their local health and care system that is nutritious for innovation, so that the change local people need is implemented effectively, efficiently and sustainably. The four hubs, located in Dorset, Bradford and Craven, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and Manchester, will each receive up to £475,000 over the next 2.5 years. They will put into practice the learning from the Health Foundation’s report The spread challenge, that the process of actually adopting innovation into routine practice requires significant resource, attention and capability.

As Helen Oliver, Deputy Chief Executive at Eastern Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) said about the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough hub, ‘We believe that health is improved by great ideas, but great ideas only make an impact when they are put into practice and that is exactly what this hub will do.’

Although each hub has defined its own priorities based on local population needs, the strong commitment across all four hubs to tackling health inequalities through partnership working is striking. We find more green shoots in their enthusiasm for applying innovation to tackle the enduring inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Over the next 2.5 years, the four teams will learn about what works together during a collaborative development programme provided by the Innovation Unit. And as always, the AHSN Network will ensure that the learning from the hubs spreads much further than the origins by cascading the work and impacts of the hubs throughout the NHS nationally.

The partnership work that we (the Health Foundation, the AHSN Network and NHS Confederation) undertook last year, to explore how the health and care sector can understand, translate and adapt the best of COVID-19-related innovations and initiatives into everyday practice, showed that each part and every level of the health and care system saw significant change in the first wave of the pandemic, at a speed and scale previously unseen. This was led by front-line staff and empowered by a changed leadership culture reflected in behaviours at both local and national level. The hubs will continue to explore the ‘what’ and the ‘how’, identifying and sustaining positive cultural conditions that have allowed innovation to be adopted at scale.

Sir Simon Stevens has highlighted the need for innovation in health care following the COVID-19 pandemic, saying that the NHS must think ‘very radically’ about how it meets the challenges of recovery. The innovation hubs will provide rich evidence on how to create the ground conditions that make these radical changes flourish for the long term. The concept of the innovation hubs, sited at the front line and working in partnership across the local health system, has been carefully designed as a practical solution to known challenges. The progress made and learning gained by the hubs will be independently evaluated to help decision-makers make informed choices about the role hubs can play in creating fertile ground for innovation adoption.

In summary, plants need care and the right conditions to flourish. The same goes for health care innovation and we look forward to applying the learning from the four innovation hubs to create optimal growing conditions for the green shoots of the future.

Laura Semple (@laurasemple3) is Director for national programmes, AHSN Network (and formerly Assistant Director for Improvement programmes at the Health Foundation)

Richard Stubbs (@richarddstubbs) is CEO of Yorkshire and Humber AHSN and Vice Chair, AHSN Network

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