In this interview, we had the pleasure of speaking with HETT Steering Committee member Iain Hennessey, a consultant Paediatric Surgeon and the clinical director of innovation at the new Alder Hey Children’s Health Park. With honours degrees in Medicine, Surgery, and Anatomical Sciences from the University of Edinburgh, Iain has trained extensively in the UK and Australia to become a leading Paediatric Surgeon.

Iain Hennessey

Iain has been at the forefront of technological advancements in children's healthcare, pioneering innovations such as point-of-care 3D printing, artificial intelligence, and advanced sensor and imaging technologies. His notable achievements include forming partnerships with multinational companies like Sony and IBM, creating a unique 1000-square-meter underground innovation facility for tech collaboration, and assembling a diverse team to drive change within the NHS. His efforts were nationally recognised with the prestigious Health Service Journal's Improving Care with Technology award. 

How to do innovation in healthcare 

Can you share a particularly memorable success story or breakthrough moment in your work that inspired you?  

It's tempting to go for something big, but something that made me happy was a massive breakthrough around the change in innovation perception.   

I split my time 50/50 between being a Paediatric Surgeon and the Clinical Director of Innovation. Recently, a new manager joined the clinical surgery team and didn't know about my innovation role. She emailed me, saying, "Iain, I really need an innovation project. Can you help me out?" The thing that was lovely about it was that the project was mandated by part of the organisation’s actual strategy. Over the years, innovation went from being seen as a crazy idea to something tolerated, then entertained, and now it’s a core part of our operations. It's even included in middle managers' KPIs, ensuring they actively support and facilitate innovation. 

What are the key elements that you feel enable innovation to thrive in healthcare? 

For me, the key element is permission. If you've got the option of money or permission, take permission because it’s amazing what you can do with nothing, as long as they let you do it. You could have all the money in the world, but if you do not have permission, then you will never get anything done. When we started the Innovation Hub, the flexibility we had and the support from our Chief Executive were crucial to its success. 

I think many innovation projects start with an injection of cash and an array of KPIs, which can miss the point a bit. The first step is to get permission and know that some risks will be taken and know that you’re allowed to do that in a different way to how the normal hospital process is run.  

What can an individual in an organisation who doesn't have a funded innovation lab do to pursue innovation? 

So, again, having no money is quite liberating in a bizarre sort of way because it allows you to get creative because you’ve got no money to spend, so you’ve got nothing to lose. The more money that comes with something and the more rules and regulations that get attached to it, the less inventive and innovative you can be. So, if you've got nothing to start with, you can then go right, what can I do that’s going to cost nothing that will have a big impact? 

There's something we did very early on and still is one of my favorite projects. It was a deal with a theme park to help them create a children's experience around creating a hospital and the kids learnt how to do CPR and how to look after burns and all the rest of it. It costs us nothing apart from our input, but it trained 90,000 kids in CPR per year, so a massive output.  

So, if you've got no money, then you need to get creative and look outside of the standard projects as those areas are often crowded with organsisations with deep pockets, bid writers and massive facilities. 

How do you go about creating longevity in innovation plans? A lot of people struggle to get past the pilot phase or scale, what is your advice? 

I think the first key thing is you need a clinical founder, and you need to have someone who's passionate about that problem being solved and who is going to be close to the problem. I say clinical founder, but it could be a patient, but someone who experienced this problem will drive it forward will be the voice and authenticity of that project. So, you need to recruit them, but also build a team around them as they will rarely have the skillset required to see the project through.  

Spread is also interesting because I think the NHS has a bad ‘was not invented here’ problem and one hospital doesn’t seem to like to take from another hospital. So that’s where you really need to integrate with the central bodies to make things more universal, or work with a partner to then get the spread of lots of other things as well. It’s also key that you have the buy in from hospitals, for example, I’ve had projects with no clinical or hospital buy-in and they’ve failed.  

And then the next bit is how do you create a team that can then disseminate and spread this out, and it's a complicated chain of things and getting them all to line up is hard. 

Can you share your thoughts on the best way to inspire those who want to get into medicine to consider the careers and benefits of pursuing innovation in healthcare?

I did an undergraduate course for medical students at the University of Liverpool with a visionary Dean who really wanted innovation in the course and thinks it’s key for the future of medicine. I had a lecturer give a lecture on human centred design, and I thought it was great, but I read through the feedback from the medical students and there were a lot of negative comments asking what it has to do with medicine.  

So, I think we’ve got quite a bit of work to do to normalise innovation and to do that we need to have examples, we need people with innovation in their job title. The great thing about our innovation hub is that we have people who are clinical innovation specialists, or innovation support, so emphasising that innovation is much of a job title as research, or management for example. So, if you create a critical mass and attract more people towards it, and it's trying to get that journey going and help future medics to understand that this is what a doctor looks like. 

For example, before the pandemic, I was running a telemedicine classes, but not one student had ever had a telemedicine encounter or delivered it. We also asked them whether they think we should be delivering medicine in that way and about 15% of them said we should not be using telemedicine at all, that it’s not medicine and they must be seen face to face.  

Visit HETT Show to find out more about doing innovation in healthcare 

Join us on 24-25th September, ExCeL London, at this year’s HETT Show to discover more about how to accelerate innovation in healthcare. This year’s show is set to be bigger than ever as HETT launches new features including:  

  • HETT Leaders - a tailored experience of networking and workshops 
  • Hosted Buyers - unites leaders with leading solution providers 
  • Product Demo Zone - explore cutting-edge solutions first-hand 
  • Innovation Trails - tailored paths connecting you with top-tier suppliers 
  • HETT Happy Hours - important discussions on stand, with a relaxed atmosphere 

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