Robert Woolley was a founding board member of the West of England AHSN since our very earliest days when we were first licensed by NHS England back in 2013. With a distinguished career in the NHS spanning more than 30 years, he retired as Chief Executive of University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust (UHBW) at the end of March 2022. Before he stepped down from both roles, Robert took the time to share some of his thoughts and recollections with us.
You were involved in establishing the West of England AHSN right at the start. What were those early days like?
I think the shape of what was to become the AHSN was a bit uncertain in the beginning. We spent quite a lot of time in the early days talking through what it would mean to translate the thrust of national policy into what it would mean for us locally and how the partnership could work most effectively together.
One thing that was clear from the start was that we were all in it because we wanted to make a difference to patient care. However, there were all sorts of agendas then around, particularly around innovation. There was discussion of creating innovation pipelines and gaining greater access to industry, which should not be novel and difficult, but can be in the NHS. Engaging with us is something the private sector still struggle with, so that was a big focus from the beginning.
How would you describe the landscape in which the AHSN operates?
It is a constantly changing landscape and that is undoubtedly a challenge. On the one hand you have the creation of Integrated Care Boards and Integrated Care Systems that do not mention much about clinical research in particular and innovation more generally. Their focus is on integration, which is fair enough. On the other hand there’s a constellation of applied research centres: the Biomedical Research Centres, the Clinical Research Network, the Academic Health Science Centre and Bristol Health Partners, as well as the AHSN.
I think this offers the AHSN an opportunity as we have the ability to shape the landscape in a way that is appropriate to all these partners.
How have UHBW and its clinicians benefited from being a part of the West of England AHSN?
It has been fantastic seeing work such the Emergency Department Checklist, PReCePT and PERIPrem initiated here in the West of England and then spread across the system. They are all brilliant examples of what can be achieved as part of the network the AHSN provides. AHSN staff have worked collaboratively and supportively with UHBW clinicians who alone would not have been able to drive the change and engage their clinical colleagues in making changes to practice. It is that support and collaboration that’s been the ingredient for success and I think it is something this AHSN has done from the start and that has really helped it to thrive.
What did you get from being on the West of England AHSN Board?
For me personally I got a huge amount out of being part of the AHSN Board. It widened my exposure to colleagues from around the region and also provided a real personal learning and development opportunity, and a chance to influence the AHSN’s approach.
Being at the heart of it we got see the results of the work around adoption and spread and what it meant to patients and staff. It meant improvement and innovation were not just empty words, abstract nouns. They make a real difference, something that was reinforced by the positive feedback I got from inside my organisation.
What do you think are the key challenges ahead for the local health and care system?
The challenge is a huge one and the complexity is growing with the development of Integrated Care Systems (ICSs). I believe the commitment to engage with local systems, which Tasha Swinscoe (chief executive) and the whole board hold close to their hearts, will help the AHSN navigate this. We also haven’t mentioned the pandemic. Taking account of and responding to its effects will shape our work. We have to respond, support the recovery, and ensure equality of access to services and health outcomes remains at the heart of what we do. There are opportunities, and some work has accelerated, but there is recovery work to do as well.