Sara Nelson, newly appointed Programme Director for DigitalHealth.London, reflects on her journey in the NHS and the digital health sector, and shares her vision for the future.
I qualified as a nurse over 27 years ago, at a time when digital technology played a minor role in my day-to-day work. That slowly began to change, and I remember the enormity of the first computer entering the coronary care unit at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital where I was a coronary care nurse at the time. As staff we didn’t feel comfortable with this new piece of machinery, and it took a long time to build our confidence. But over time I saw that when technology was brought in correctly and was well-designed with consideration of patients and staff, the benefits could be enormous. Experiences like this and the benefits I noticed when the staff were engaged, meant I jumped at the chance to become the first Senior Nurse for digital at the NHS Trust. Diving in at the deep end, I learnt so much in this role and was able to break down barriers between the tech teams and the clinical/ward teams. We established a team of technical staff, the “orange t-shirts”, who supported the wards on a daily basis with any IT issues. It was also in this role where I first witnessed the power of bringing together a group of like-minded individuals from across an organisation. On this occasion it was 35 nurses from across multiple teams, all of whom were interested in digital and the impact it could have on patients. We met on a regular basis to discuss ideas and this collaborative approach meant we could get things done more quickly. Although I am no longer on the front line, the training and qualities I developed as a nurse are still very much a part of who I am today.
Enabling innovation across London
In 2018 I became an NHS Navigator for the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator programme. The role of the Navigator is to understand the needs of companies on the Accelerator programme, share advice on the development of their products/services and, as the name suggests, help them to navigate the NHS. This role gave me the chance to make an impact at a regional level across London and gave me greater insight into the healthtech world. When the opportunity to lead the Accelerator programme as maternity cover for Jenny Thomas presented itself, I was delighted to take on the challenge. Anna King along with Jenny led the setup of the flagship Accelerator programme from the beginning in 2016 and was pivotal in driving the growth of DigitalHealth.London, so it was a privilege to work with them and learn from them. In this role I grew my understanding of the needs of the innovators and how this aligned with the NHS Trusts’ priorities. I learnt more about the ways we can support the system to make it easier for tech to be adopted by organisations and also fully realised the importance of multidisciplinary team working in the area of digital health.
A national approach to digital nursing
In 2021, I was named Deputy CNIO for NHSX (now NHS England). This was a completely new national role, signifying the growing recognition of nursing and midwifery involvement in digital health. During my time as Deputy CNIO, I was responsible for education leadership strategy portfolios and the development of leadership through national, regional, and local teams. I worked with my team to develop guidance for nurses in response to the national “What good looks like” framework and supported regional and local teams in implementing this.
What comes next for DigitalHealth.London?
Having concentrated on the importance of nurse involvement in digital health, I decided I wanted to return to a multidisciplinary approach to digital health at a regional level, as I feel this is the place where I can make the most impact. I am delighted to be re-joining the DigitalHealth.London team as Programme Director at such an exciting time and when the programme is going from strength to strength. The award-winning Accelerator programme continues to support some of the top innovations in London, the Digital Pioneer Fellowship has grown a new arm in the form of the Horizon Fellowship which represents a fantastic approach to staff-growth and innovation by Chelsea and Westminster Foundation Trust, and we are piloting the DigitalHealth.London Evidence Generation Bootcamp to do even more to support companies with evaluation of their products. All of this is ultimately doing more to improve outcomes for patients and NHS staff.
I have many passions which I will be bringing with me into this role, and if I were to pick my top three, they would be:
- Putting patients first: Having worked so closely with patients for so long, they are always at the front of my mind, no matter what I am doing. I’m dedicated to ensuring we at DigitalHealth.London are doing everything we can to keep patients at the centre of what we and the participants of our programmes do.
- Building a supportive culture: Culture is also of great importance to me. I intend to foster a supportive environment, not only for my team, but for the companies and NHS staff on our programmes too, in turn hopefully encouraging the spread of supportive leadership across their teams.
- Bringing in tech, the right way: I truly believe in the benefits that digital health technologies can bring to our health and social care services, and I want to support the incorporation of technology into the NHS in the right way. Best practice guidance is so important as part of this, to ensure the right technologies are scaled.
I’m excited for the fantastic opportunities facing the programme over the coming years as we explore new funding opportunities and partnerships. As the new Integrated Care Systems structure is embedded and as the national goals shift, my team and I will ensure that DigitalHealth.London continues to stay on the forefront of digital innovation and empower staff on the ground to drive change for patients and the public.
DigitalHealth.London is delighted to publish blogs by the NHS staff and digital health companies we support through our programmes, as well as sector thought-leaders, experts and academics. Any opinions expressed within blogs published on our website are those of the author and not necessarily held by DigitalHealth.London. For more information, or if you would like to write a blog for our website, please email info@digitalHealth.london.