A new Davos for health? International lessons from this year’s WISH conference | Layla McCay

Layla McCay

As a forum for world healthcare leaders, Layla McCay, director of international relations at the NHS Confederation, found WISH in Qatar to be more than just a conference.

It can be hard to know which healthcare conferences to attend. But the World Innovation Summit for Health (WISH) in Qatar is one of those aspiring to become the ‘Davos for health’. It’s an interesting concept: there are many international health conferences with similar ambitions, but a frontrunner for attracting the world’s health leaders and thinkers has yet to emerge. I went to Doha, Qatar, in November to experience WISH and pick up learnings for the NHS. 

WISH is not just a conference; it’s an attempt to create a network that allows accelerated innovation and adoption of technology, processes and business models, run by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. As you might expect, there’s an exhibition featuring the sorts of glitzy tech innovations, from virtual reality physiotherapy to a robot that teaches children sign language. But the real action is on stage. Between summits, delegates work together to understand key issues in healthcare, then bring their findings to WISH. The chair, Lord Darzi, attests: “WISH is a community for crowdsourcing the best and most innovative ideas in health and healthcare.” It’s a compelling set-up. So what lessons did I learn?

Diffusion of innovation: Taking data to the next level

A major theme of the summit was how to achieve diffusion of innovation. Cognitive biases slow innovation adoption – but they can be overcome to make the health sector more open to innovation. According to Maureen Bisognano from the Institute for Healthcare Improvement (IHI), one of the most effective ways to combat the ‘that sounds great but it wouldn’t work in our context’ refrain is in-person visits to open people’s minds to new possibilities and nudge them into innovating.

There was much focus on data science and artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare: “Currently rich in opportunities, but poor in impact,” according to Lord Darzi. Speakers agreed that progress will depend on interoperability, data sharing, data curation, cross-sector integration, and a regulatory framework that facilitates both patient confidence and rapid innovation. Effy Vayena, professor of bioethics at Harvard, reminded us that data sharing is constrained not just by regulatory and technical barriers, but also by attitudinal barriers, and that bold long-term thinking is needed for data to power innovation. David Bates from Brigham and Women’s Hospital agreed: a good environment for innovation includes patient involvement, access to providers and clinical systems, and open APIs.

Designing a human-centred health system

Adhering to the legacy of how-things-have-always-been-done is the enemy of design thinking. According to the president emeritus of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Don Berwick, the first step in designing a genuinely human-centred health system is to let go of previous assumptions like ‘If we just try harder, we’ll have success’. Instead we should be more curious, accepting the concept of uncertainty, and emulating designers by looking more at how people use and experience their surroundings. Genuine co-design means seeking input from patients and providers for every innovation (rather than simply getting them to comment on a pre-formed plan). They recommended giving all employees training in design thinking.

Patients as people

Competitive swimmer, Michael Phelps, described how labels stopped him seeking help when he experienced mental health problems. When he felt perceived as ‘world champion swimmer’ rather than simply as a person, he found it difficult to talk about his mental health. This theme permeated the whole summit. A discussion about why there was a lack of patient representatives on a panel, led the panellists to reflect that we create an artificial binary of healthcare professional and healthcare recipient: everyone is a patient at some point. As such, perhaps we ought to bring personal experience more explicitly to work to help drive innovation.

Contenders for the ‘Davos for health’ title

Perhaps the most remarkable feature about healthcare discussions at international fora like WISH is the extent to which health service challenges and opportunities are shared, even where the jurisdictions appear to operate very differently. It is also evident that the more reputedly ‘advanced’ healthcare systems have much to learn from developing countries who have the chance to skip and avoid some of the mistakes more developed health systems have made.

Is WISH the Davos for health? Perhaps not quite yet. The International Hospital Federation’s (IHF) World Hospital Congress is also becoming a contender. At its September Congress in Brisbane, Australia it covered similar ground, and was similarly backed by international senior engagement and practical rigour to a greater extent than at many health conferences. The IHF may be constrained by its hospital-centric name (particularly given that it now expands into wider healthcare systems); a name change might be helpful. In the battle for Davos-esque supremacy, WISH does have a particular advantage: the resources to pay for health leaders to attend. It would be compelling to see these two significant gatherings of world health leaders coming together. And how about TEDMED as their blue-sky-thinking side event? Fewer events, leveraging synergies to achieve bigger impact, could be transformational for international healthcare thinking.

Layla McCay is director of international relations at the NHS Confederation. Follow her on Twitter @LaylaMcCay

Find out about the NHS Confederation’s annual conference and exhibition, a unique experience where health and social care leaders can face shared challenges, find practical solutions, expand their professional network and debate topical issues.

Latest Tweets

Latest Blog Post

How we create a culture on the board to enable colleagues from diverse backgrounds to flourish | Ifti Majid

12 / 6 / 2019 8.16pm

An inclusive and representative board has to be a prime component of confidence building, writes Ifti Majid

Why Register?

Great reasons to register with NHS Confederation

  • Access exclusive resources 
    Access member-only resources and tailor member benefits and services
  • Personalise your website
    Select topics of interest for recommended content
  • Comment and recommend
    Rate and share content with colleagues
  • Never miss a thing
    Register now to keep your finger on the pulse of the NHS Confederation

Log In

To book events and access member only content you need to register with us.  This only takes a moment via our registration page. If you have already registered login using your email address and password below.