South West AHSN’s new Spread Academy is helping to equip NHS leaders with the skills to spread change in complex systems to improve patient care. Here, they describe some of the learnings from their first academy held in March 2019.

As The Health Foundation recently put it, when it comes to spreading innovation in health and social care, invention is ‘only half the story’. There’s a great deal of skill and resource required to see a new technology or practice successfully adopted and sustainably spread across a landscape that is notoriously tough to crack.

In Devon, Cornwall, and Somerset, the South West Academic Health Science Network (SW AHSN) is rising to the perennial challenge of adoption in the NHS by providing leaders in health and care with an exclusive lesson in unleashing large-scale change at its new Spread Academy.

The academy, run in partnership with the renowned US-based Billions Institute, is designed to equip leaders with the skills they need to spread change in complex systems to improve care for patients.Based on the Billions Institute’s highly influential training programme Skid Row School for change agents, the academy is an initiative of the SW AHSN’s Innovation Exchange and builds upon the themes of The Health Foundation’s 2018 aforementioned report The spread challenge, which suggests we shift the spotlight from innovators to adopters to successfully replicate inventions in the healthcare system.

“We talk a lot about the inventors, the ‘Einsteins’ of health and care. We don’t talk so much about the adopters, the implementers,” says SW AHSN’s associate director of business development, William Lilley.

“Our Spread Academy is designed to develop the confidence and effectiveness of leaders to help create a culture that’s receptive to adoption and one in which we can introduce change sustainably.”

Over 70 professionals, including NHS leaders, a dietitian, and an ex-rocket engineer, were selected from a competitive application process to join the SW AHSN’s first Spread Academy, held in Exeter in March. The four-day immersion course, led by Billions Institute co-founders Becky Margiotta and Joe McCannon, combined storytelling and collaborative group work based on best practice from international sectors beyond the NHS and multiple approaches from quality improvement collaboratives.

Perhaps most powerfully, the academy placed deep emphasis on the psychology of change. Participants were asked to dig deep into their past to understand their present-day motivations and begin the personal transformation they need to spread innovation on a large scale.

To William, gently challenging participants to root their work in their own story was the key to sparking the beginnings of change: “It’s clear from feedback that individuals found our experience transformative in how they see change and how they’ll introduce change going forward.”

Academy pupil Marianne Williams, a dietitian based in Somerset, said she found the experience: “emotionally exhausting, cognitively challenging, powerfully enlightening, and deeply touching”, reporting she left the academy feeling “a different person to the one that walked through the door.”

While the SW AHSN is helping pupils of March’s academy to implement sustainable change with a further nine months’ worth of support, it is working closely with the Billions Institute and its other partners in the UK to nurture ideas for a second Spread Academy focused on personalised care in the autumn. As the initiative grows, the SW AHSN plans to create a community of adopters who hold the key to transforming the future of health and social care for patients.

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South West AHSN is one of England’s 15 Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs). The NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) is an NHS England initiative delivered in partnership with all 15 AHSNs.