Innovation through technology

By Alex Drinkall

Innovation is a much-used word within the NHS and as a word I associate with being aspirational I encourage its sentiment. However, as a communications professional working in the NHS it is important to remember: innovation is relative.

You’ll learn:

• A lack of access and acceptance can create barriers to technology adoption and therefore innovation
• Teams need to consider ways to address digital illiteracy for innovation through technology to succeed
• Strong internal comms is the only way to raise awareness and secure engagement where there is a call to action, particularly with a disparate and busy workforce

Equipping the workforce

Our lives are increasingly digital and we use technology every day, both personally and professionally, whether we like it or not. 

There is often the assumption that technology and innovation go hand in hand, but the opposite can in fact be true. For example, innovation can be stifled due to barriers to technology when it comes to access and acceptance. 

We see barriers to technology and digital acceptance within the NHS, which often reduces opportunities for innovation within health and social care too.

Health Education England’s (HEE) Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) Programme has the vision that healthcare should be underpinned by education and training which is enhanced through innovation and the use of existing and emergent technologies and techniques. 

The work of the programme includes breaking down some of the barriers experienced in the NHS in terms of accessing technology. 

There is also an understanding that to embrace emerging technologies, the workforce needs to be digitally literate, so the team has been working to understand what is required to equip the workforce with the digital capabilities for living, learning, working, participating and thriving in a digital society. 

Achieving the aims of the TEL programme relies on engaging with the workforce to understand the current situation, how it could be improved and working to develop the solutions.

Health Education England’s digital capabilities


As a communications professional working in the NHS you have to find workarounds for engaging with the disparate and busy workforce to share educational resources and gather insight to inform future work. 

The NHS employs more staff now than at any time in its history and while technology has opened up opportunities for communicating with the workforce, it is still a huge challenge.

Engagement techniques

e-Learning for Healthcare (e-LfH) is an HEE programme that works in partnership with the NHS and professional bodies to support patient care by providing e-learning to educate and train the health and social care workforce. 

HEE e-LfH is currently developing and delivering more than 100 e-learning programmes comprising over 10,000 e-learning sessions covering subjects from audiology to anaesthesia, dentistry to dermatology, safeguarding to statutory and mandatory training. 

e-LfH is well-loved and well-used by those who know about it…and this was our challenge.

In Autumn 2017 we launched a campaign to raise awareness of the e-learning programmes with the target audience being the NHS workforce, for whom the resources can be accessed for free. 

The campaign was social media-led and we directed specific professional groups (midwives, surgeons, occupational therapists, GPs, medical students etc) to e-learning programmes relevant to their roles. 

We felt the approach was quite innovative – for the NHS – as we used informal, often clichéd, puns as the narrative hooks, which were complemented with high quality images including real members of the workforce doing their job or accessing e-learning. 

We launched the campaign across Facebook and Twitter and within its first week we saw an increase in new registrations to the e-LfH Hub of 175% compared to the same week the previous year.

We followed the campaign’s launch with the development of a toolkit of assets (posters, flyers, web banners etc), which we shared with communications teams in NHS Trusts and organisations throughout the country. 

The ask was for communications colleagues to localise the materials and share the information throughout their organisation to encourage even more members of the workforce to access the free e-learning programmes.

The next phase of the e-LfH campaign is currently being planned and will be rolled out using a similar model.

Twitter chats as a data gathering exercise

One key challenge for the TEL Programme and other parts of the NHS, is getting feedback from members of the workforce on projects that are being shaped and ensuring any feedback gathered is multi-professional. 

Getting such feedback is crucial to allow the NHS workforce to increase the relevance of proposed solutions. An incredibly useful channel for us to fulfil these requirements has been Twitter and more specifically Twitter chats.

We have worked with WeCommunities to run a series of Twitter chats on subjects including: simulation, digital literacy, barriers to accessing technology, e-learning, mobile device interaction, artificial intelligence and sharing resources and innovation. 

With the help of these chats we have engaged with nurses, midwives, health visitors, AHPs, paramedics, doctors and others. 

The hour-long chats are hosted by the WeCommunities team. The TEL Programme recruits colleagues in advance to be part of the expert panel, adding context and their own experience on the subject to the discussion. 

The pre-agreed questions are asked at intervals during the 60 minutes and members of the Twitter community respond to these questions, giving their own thoughts on the discussion points and how the issues relate to their professional practice or organisation.

Not only do we gather rich insight from the workforce to inform our work during these chats, but we also connect with people who are interested in what we are doing, who often become involved in the projects long after the Twitter chat has finished. 

Building that network is so important to the future of healthcare communications and is still a key challenge – admittedly it’s easier now than it was seventy years ago when there wasn’t the technology to help.

Innovation is here to stay

Innovation will continue to be key to the digital transformation of the NHS and its workforce in the coming years.

How communications teams support that work is vital and is intrinsically linked to communications being seen as a strategic corporate function – but that’s another drum to bang. 

The role I have to play as a communications professional working in the NHS is to support the work happening to ensure staff have the skills they need to respond to and adopt the emerging technologies and innovations. 

However as much as digital is becoming and for some already has become, our lives – the heart of the NHS must continue to be built around compassion and care with digital and the technological advancements being part of the everyday and enhancing that care, rather than something extra.

Technology has without a doubt helped NHS communications professionals to engage more widely, but that doesn’t always mean we are using the most innovative of practices, techniques or channels. Innovation is relative. 

In an organisation that is such an institution we have to use what is available to us that is most effective in helping us to realise our aims and objectives. 

What is innovative to one communications professional may not be to another – but surely, the skill and success in our profession is understanding.


Alex Drinkall is a freelance communications professional with over 20 years’ experience of working predominantly across the health, social care and education sectors. She has worked both inhouse and agency side for clients including Health Education England, Yorkshire Ambulance Service, Macmillan Cancer Support, Public Health England, Higher Education England and several primary care and acute hospital Trusts.

Twitter: @AlexDrinkall127 and @HEE_TEL