By engaging with the public, we can develop change that really works | David Pencheon

David Pencheon

Where do the greatest improvements, inventions and innovations come from? The brightest minds in science and technology or the people that will actually use them? 

You can be sure the next iPhone won’t be developed in a laboratory in San Francisco, kept under lock and key and tested only by men in white gloves and lab coats. And that’s because the best innovations and technology are developed in partnership with the people who will use them.

It doesn’t matter how good something looks in a laboratory or film studio, or how good ideas sound at a meeting room table. What matters is how the new technology, way of working or method of delivering care works for the people using that service.

This week’s Innovation Expo in Manchester has provided an opportunity for people from across the NHS and beyond to meet, share ideas, technologies, new ways of improving health and care – and much more. Attendees have been discussing ways to meet the ever-growing needs of an ever-growing population within the limited resources available.

But it is not just needs and demands we have to deal with: we are also compelled to build on the assets we have within our workforces and the families and communities we serve. These are as important as the financial resources we’re allocated.

Like all good expos, we’ve heard from the brightest minds, the keenest thinkers and seen some of the shiniest technology and most promising software, straight from the production line. This is what excites many of us about healthcare – the power of transformation, revolution and innovation to help improve health and care. 

But amid all the talking, networking and sharing, I hope we haven’t forgotten how crucial it is to really engage with the people delivering and using services on a daily basis. And by engage I mean listening, asking and developing improvements with the people who will use and benefit from them.

When it comes to sustainable development in health, we are fortunate to have the backing of the public – it’s important to patients. Ninety-two per cent of people in our market research in 2012 felt it should be a priority in the NHS. And us here at the Sustainable Development Unit are continually refreshing our understanding of public views. One member of the public once told me at an event: “The way the NHS is fit for the future is important to me and my family. After all, that is where we are going to spend the rest of our life.”

For sustainable development to really work we need people to be part of it – not merely be supportive of the approach. It’s not an issue just for men in boiler suits looking at heating systems in the basement of a hospital; nor is it just about solar panels or recycling schemes. For sustainable development to really work, we need to engage with the healthcare system and its service users too. 

The principles of sustainable development reach further than energy, water and waste – it means protecting the physical and social environment to build strong communities where health is valued and protected. A sustainable approach is one that truly values the finite resources and infinite human assets we have. It reduces the negative impacts, enhancing personal health and wellbeing, increasing independence and reducing preventable illness.

That’s why engaging with people on a wider scale is so important, so we all understand the financial, environmental and social limits we are working within. That way we all understand the positive impact we can have as individuals, as communities and as part of a health and care system. And we build our ability to deal with the effects of some of the greatest threats we face, such as climate change.

If we’re to going to build a sustainable health and care system we need the whole of society to be on board – we can’t do this alone. 

By ensuring the public understand the challenges we face, they can be equal and valued partners in creating a service that helps us all live lives we have reason to value – as well as leaving a legacy we can be proud of for future generations. Together, we can.

David Pencheon is director of the Sustainable Development Unit. Follow him and the organisation on Twitter @pencheon1 @sduhealth

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