Catalysts and connectors: five years of the academic health science networks | Mike Hannay

Mike Hannay

Just five years on from their creation, academic health science networks (AHSNs) have introduced over 330 innovations into the health service, with more than 22 million patients benefiting from their work so far. Mike Hannay, chair of the AHSN Network, recounts the journey so far and why AHSNs have the X Factor.

In the words of many an X Factor contestant, we’ve been on quite a journey since the 15 academic health science networks (AHSNs) were first licensed by NHS England back in May 2013.

And as is the case for many an X Factor wannabe, there have been a fair few challenges and obstacles in our path along the way, countless lessons learned, and some memorable highlights.

There are of course the big-ticket achievements: the bold examples of healthcare innovation and transformation that AHSNs have helped spot, nurture and embed into our systems. You’ll find many of these showcased on our Atlas and in our NHS 70 Innovations countdown.

In the last five years, we’ve made some significant impacts. Over 22 million patients have benefited from our work so far, while we have managed to introduce over 330 innovations into the health service.
We don’t do any of this work alone. We are catalysts and connectors. We bring the right individuals and organisations together to make change happen.

And this is why there are countless ‘hidden’ success stories: the valuable introductions made at our connection events around the country; the positive influence we’ve had on changing work cultures and practices; and the incredible insights we’ve encouraged from patients and the public in co-creating new solutions and redesigning existing services.

Partnership working is essential to driving innovation. At a national level, we work strategically with NHS England, NHS Improvement, NHS Digital, government departments and many more to ensure innovation is at the heart of the healthcare and life sciences agenda. And regionally too, every AHSN plays a pivotal role in bringing together the NHS, social care, academic, industry and voluntary sectors. No one is better placed than AHSNs to understand the ‘push and pull’ of demand on innovation.

Perhaps our most important partners are patients and the public themselves. A golden thread linking many of our achievements to date is the difference made by genuine patient and public involvement.

There’s been pioneering work with people with dementia and their families on how we measure the impact of dementia services, and support for members of the public to become AF Ambassadors to help detect atrial fibrillation in the community as part of our strategy to reduce AF-related strokes.

Experts by experience are inspiring, shaping and refining new products and services. School nurses and young people co-designed the text messaging service, ChatHealth. Patients with long-term conditions steered the development of Flo Telehealth. Through the Design Together, Live Better programme hundreds of patients and carers identified gaps in provision and worked with innovators to develop brand new prototypes to take to market.

In our new licence from NHS England, the 15 AHSNs will operate as the key innovation arm of the NHS; supporting our health and care partners to deliver improvements that lead to better patient outcomes, drive down the cost of are stimulate economic growth.

A number of programmes developed or piloted regionally have been selected for national adoption and spread across the AHSN Network during 2018-2020.

The AHSN Network will continue to host the 15 regional Patient Safety Collaboratives (PSCs), commissioned by NHS Improvement. The PSCs are playing a vitally important role in creating safer systems of care.

And funded by the government’s Office for Life Sciences, we are coordinating a national network of Innovation Exchanges, building on our unique expertise and cross-sector connections.

With what seems like a current explosion of innovation and new technologies, the role of the AHSNs isn’t simply to support the NHS in identifying those in which to invest, but also in helping to build health and care ecosytems, with cultures, leadership and pathways ready to accept and work with these new solutions.

This is where most change needs to happen, and so innovation is not just about new technology; I like to think we’re as much in the business of social innovation. This is our X Factor.

Of course, this year we are celebrating 70 years of the National Health Service, and the NHS is in itself an incredible example of social innovation. I’m proud that in the AHSNs this spirit is strong, and that together with our partners we are evolving our health service fit for today and another 70 years to come.

Mike Hannay is the managing director of the East Midlands Academic Health Science Network and chair of the AHSN Network. Follow him and the network on Twitter at @mike_hannay and @AHSNNetwork.

Find out more about the AHSN Network at and visit the network at stand FA2a at Confed18 on 13 and 14 June.

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