NHS Digital’s Head of Design, Tero Väänänen is a thought-leader in user-centred service design for health & care. Having over 20 years of experience in applying and championing user-centred design within leading organisations; we are thrilled to be welcoming Tero as a speaker at the upcoming HETT Show this September.

We caught up with Tero for an exclusive interview discussing digital inclusion and the creation of more digitally-enabled communities.

HETT: Thank you for taking the time to have this interview with us, Tero.
Firstly, we would love to know a little more about your role as the Head of Design at NHS Digital and how this has evolved in the past 2 years?

Tero Väänänen: I lead the design community at NHS Digital, championing and developing design thinking, and the skills of service designers and interaction designers. I am responsible for the standards and principles that we work to, that they are appropriate and adhered to.

During the pandemic, I set up and led the user-centred service design for our COVID-19 Digital Testing service, followed up by doing the same for the COVID-19 Vaccinations service. I’m immensely proud of the work we did for the whole pandemic response, and I was glad to have been able to contribute to so many essential services during such a challenging time.

Now, I’ve got two focus areas; I’m leading the next phase of the NHS Service Manual, which publishes standards, our design system, and design principles. Without the NHS Service Manual, the swift delivery of multiple usable and inclusive services to respond to the pandemic would not have been possible, within NHS Digital and across the wider NHS. Now it’s time for the new chapter; to get the NHS Service Manual ready for the post-pandemic world with high digital aspirations.

I am also focusing on strengthening our accessibility leadership as part of the wider inclusive design strategy. The NHS constitution states that “The NHS provides a comprehensive service, available to all”. Our digital services are for many the most convenient way to access the NHS and our moral and legal responsibility is to ensure that they are accessible to everyone. We know this is not always the case at the moment – we have some work to do on that and we are determined to make it better.

HETT: Fantastic achievements highlighted, especially around the pandemic which must have been challenging. When it comes to healthcare overall, what do you believe are the biggest challenges the sector is facing at present?

Tero Väänänen: Our goal in providing digital services to the NHS is to help reduce this cost by creating national platforms and services, which can be reused across the system, enabling appropriate information sharing and enabling healthcare staff to spend more time with patients. This includes both staff-facing and public-facing products and services, like the NHS website, the NHS App, or Electronic Prescription Service, to mention a few. We need to work harder to drive the cost down by identifying service patterns, which we can build once, but use multiple times in different services, e.g. booking an appointment or referring the patient to another care setting.

Another challenge is equitable access to care for all, and what is the role of digital in this. Digital is never going to replace face-to-face care, nor should it aim to be the only way people can access health & care services. But how can we make digital accessible to those who can and want to use it, so that, those who need to use the telephone, or face-to-face can do so as well, easily and conveniently?

And for the third challenge, I would raise the whole system care. Looking at patient journeys across the system, from health care to social care and beyond. How can we design services so that they are seamless across these boundaries? One big barrier for this at the moment is data; How can we have the right data in the right place at the right time, while still guaranteeing data safety and privacy, and trust with people?

HETT: Pertinent points and the emphasis on inclusion through a digital lens is crucial. What is the best approach to building a digitally enabled community?

Tero Väänänen: We design, build, and deliver digital services for the NHS staff, to help them in their work to look after the people. But we do understand the same accessibility and inclusion challenges we recognise with the public are also within our staff and we cannot simply tell people what to do and use.

The users of our services are everyone, and we champion extensive user research throughout the design process to identify the real problems to solve and how to make our services usable, accessible, and equitable for all the users, including the NHS staff. This is important because if the digital service solves a real problem, they are more likely to use it. And ensuring the products and services are usable and accessible, lowers the barrier to use and how to use them.

Training and guidance are of course really important too; supporting the users to create communities to discuss and support each other by sharing guidance and benefits.

HETT: It seems that the success of building a digitally-enabled community would require a united front and more collaboration which is great! What are some of the challenges you think could be relieved as a result of integrated care?

Tero Väänänen: The new integrated care systems have a brilliant opportunity to enable the whole system care, as I mentioned earlier. Different parts of the whole health services are often delivered by multiple service providers and often the final service provision is by the regional and local teams. By looking at the whole care for their region, the integrated care systems can join these different patient journeys and touchpoints together as whole services and make a massive difference to public health, health inequalities, and save the NHS money by being more efficient.

Our job, as the national service provider is then to look at the things that make sense to do nationally, for the benefit of the integrated care systems.

HETT: Amazing! With collaborative working being here to stay, and the rapid growth of digital technologies, how will the role of design evolve in health and care over the next five years?

Tero Väänänen:
When I joined NHS Digital some 6 years ago, there were very few of us designers here. Now, we have the largest user-centred design community in the health sector and one of the largest in the whole public sector. But as we have been in the delivery end of the process, we have not been able to help to tackle the challenges from the start.

As we are coming together to create a new NHS England, this will mean we can work closer together with the whole system; for example, user-centred design working closely with policy can make a huge difference as demonstrated by similar setups elsewhere in the government.

So, I hope we see user-centred design and service design thinking evolve to become embedded in all parts of the system and not just the responsibility of us who have a designer in our job title. Everyone in the NHS will play a part to become more user-centred and know how they can embed those into their own roles.

HETT: We look forward to seeing the growth of design in the sector. Now with HETT Show being around the corner, what do you hope to see at the event?

Tero Väänänen:
I hope to see some inspirational talks and discussions, but also to be able to make connections with people around the health & care sector. To build up those links to work together.

HETT: Thank you for your time today, Tero. It’s been a pleasure catching up with you and learning more about the importance of collaboration and inclusivity when embarking on digital health initiatives. We look forward to seeing you at HETT Show (27th 28th September, ExCeL London)

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