Art of the Possible

22nd September 2020

In this blog, Commercial Director, Russ Watkins reflects on the last 20 months of being at the AHSN NENC, whether he has made a difference – and if so, how.

One of the great things about being employed by an AHSN is the ability to have some freedoms not often afforded in the NHS. When I applied for the role of Commercial Director, I was asked at interview what new ideas I would bring to the role. As you often do in those scenarios, you have a bit of bluster and mad ramblings, but I wanted to bring to the AHSN a notion of the ‘Art of the Possible.’ It’s not a new concept, but in essence it is to bring something that already exists (in this context in another sector other than the NHS) and introduce it to some willing victims and see if any of it sticks. If it does stick, you explore the enthusiasm a little more to see what happens. That is basically what I have done, and this blog just aims to explore it in a bit more detail.

Exploring extended reality

Starting a new job is great because you are not bogged down with endless meetings, and so have some head space to be a bit creative and that is what I did. With the Art of the Possible, you need to pick areas that are in some way grounded in a little-known enthusiasm just so you know you can get some people to turn up. For example, I had the idea from many years of working in the NHS that the use of VR (virtual reality) could support education and training, and orientation of staff and patients in new situations. I had been afforded with the opportunity to work with Professor Soomro and Andy Bowey at Newcastle Hospitals, both advokes of the use of the technology in robotics and orthopaedic surgery respectively and I wondered if they were a bit mad or was there something in this. So, I set about trying to look into this in a bit more detail.

I remember heading to and from London on the train and having the luxury of not wading through emails for the 6 hour round trip, I thought let’s do some Google searches. What I was not expecting was to see that the North East has a wonderful tech industry, something I have to confess I was oblivious to when I worked in the NHS. I also found out that there was a whole world outside of VR and a term I needed to use was XR (Extended Reality – which incorporates virtual reality, augmented reality and immersive / mixed technologies) and straight away I was outside of my comfort zone, or as my son would call me when playing Minecraft a ‘Noob’ (yes, it is a word and actually sums me up nicely in terms of this – a person who is inexperienced in a particular sphere or activity, especially computing or the use of the Internet). However, the important bit to learn here is that it doesn’t matter because you surround yourself with people who do know and do have the experience. Thankfully, I have managed to find some people who were both willing to listen to my mad ideas, but also to take those and do something with it.

I got agreement for us to host our first ever AHSN NENC ‘Art of the Possible’ event aimed to do exactly that – to bring together the knowledge and experience from different sectors to talk about the possibilities. The event was to be a catalyst for development, collaboration and education – we just needed to get it organised!

Building tech networks

After a few more Google searches and discussions I found myself chatting to Matt Atkinson and Dan Reilly at System 88 / Radical Panda and Spearhead Interactive, and Shaun Allan, who is now with Vector76. They humoured me and said yes to helping me out with an event at the newly opened Proto Centre in Gateshead. Their job was simple, showcase some of the technology that is used in other industries, mine was, I thought, slightly more difficult and that was to herd some front-line clinicians to come and listen. After several discussions with Sarah Black, our events supremo at the AHSN, a breakfast meeting with bacon sarnies and a lunch might just do the trick. It certainly did as we had around 60 people there to come and see what this was all about.

As with any event the planning was extremely stressful, even more so for me as this was the first event I had done at the AHSN, plus a few people were probably thinking, ‘what the hell is this all about?’, but as I was new I kind of went with the flow. The useful thing again is the people I had found made it really easy. Shaun and Dan from the techy side and Matt from the design sprint side (another blog to come on that in the future I suspect) to create a session which delved into the problems and barriers in the NHS and then after seeing the technology what did they learn and how it could be applied in the NHS. What we ended up with is a number of themes – surgery and robotics, simulation, rehabilitation and mental health. All wanting to use the technology slightly differently and for different purposes. Excellent, I couldn’t have asked for more, what I never anticipated is that the agenda has grown significantly.

Art of the Possible

Creating a virtual space for clinicians

The importance of being able to tell a story was vital, gaining interest and getting people excited is the easy bit, keeping that sustained and increasing it is a lot of more work. I initially had a view that I would tackle ChatBots and the world of remote monitoring and management, but the success of XR has been all consuming. We decided that we need to invest in one of the themes in order to get a sort of proof of principle and we agreed to go with an MRI experience for children and patients with learning disabilities. We are in the final testing phase of that and I hope to pull together some comms on that in the next couple of weeks as it is a really exciting project.

The clinical interest has been sufficiently high enough so we have moved on to phase II of the development and that is to assess how big this could go, the AHSN (well, through the trusted hands of Rachel Turnbull) has teamed up with the North East Local Enterprise Partnership to develop a feasibility study on the next steps. This might involve a physical building, or the utilisation of existing buildings in the North East, but almost certainly the development of a virtual space where clinical innovators can team up with local SMEs to develop content which can be evaluated by the local higher education institutions, with the key partnerships of Health Education England – North East to assess the impact of education and training opportunities. The involvement of clinicians across all different parts of the NHS in the North East has never been as diverse in any project I have ever been involved with.

Whilst I might be biased, and happy to be called a dreamer, we have gone from ‘Art of the Possible’ to it being completely and utterly possible, and as ever the North East and North Cumbria will be leading the way, and this blog I hope sets the scene!