In this blog, Laura Semple AHSN Network Director for National Programmes reflects on the challenges faced by the health and care system over the last year; the impacts and benefits of the innovation programmes delivered nationally by the AHSNs; and discusses why she is particularly excited about the year ahead.

The mission of the AHSN Network is to transform lives through health and care innovation. Since 2013 we have given practical support to an incredibly busy health and social care system aimed at improving health through widening access to proven innovations.

In August 2021, when I began work in my current post, I knew the effects of the pandemic were having an impact on patient care; routine appointments had been cancelled or postponed, causing a growing backlog of work. From my acute background in diabetes and cardiovascular care, I’ve seen examples where, when you invest in prevention, there is a significant beneficial impact on patient outcomes, so the delays to routine and preventative care were of great concern to me and all in the health and care community.

On the release of our AHSN Network impact report, I’ve been reflecting on what we and our partners have achieved despite the challenges brought about by the pandemic.

I have enormous respect for the progress that colleagues across the health and care system have continued to make in our priority areas. In both the eating disorders and ADHD national programmes, which focus on children and young peoples’ mental health, staff have shown real resilience to deliver beneficial changes. While the pandemic has brought serious challenges along the way, the latest figures demonstrate positive change with 30 mental health trusts adopting or in the process of adopting the FREED model, to provide young people aged 16-25 with tailored specialist care for eating disorders. And more than 19,000 patients have benefited from objective ADHD tests, saving the NHS approximately £6.5 million.

With our cardiovascular health programmes too – focusing on lipids and familial hypercholesterolaemia along with blood pressure optimisation – we have a good understanding of how as a country we fell behind with aspects of routine care during the pandemic. We are now supporting general practice staff to use the practical tools they need to catch up and get back to where we were before the pandemic and continue to improve.

Particularly for lipids, the uptake of innovative medicines is increasing – in the last year it’s estimated that our national programme has contributed to more than 350,000 people receiving intensive therapy or innovative medication to reduce their cholesterol levels, helping to avoid heart attacks and strokes. This is heartening news for colleagues in primary care who are looking for better news after two years working in a maelstrom of change.

Looking forward

The joy of this job is looking forward. I’m excited at the prospect of the AHSN Network leading two new programmes that I know from my own experience really will bring benefits to patients and help ease pressure on clinical colleagues as the NHS emerges from the pandemic.

Lower limb wound care – for years a complex area which the healthcare system has found challenging – is now an area where I am confident we can make a real and tangible difference to the lives of patients and staff. Choosing to focus a programme of work on this huge and complex area by galvanizing a national effort, is something I’m really proud we’re doing. The AHSN Network national Transforming Wound Care programme builds on the success of the National Wound Care Strategy Programme. By implementing best practice for getting lower limb wounds healing more quickly, this programme will make an important contribution to easing the pressure on elective care; general practice; and community services.

Our other new area of focus for this year is no less significant. Problematic polypharmacy is another challenging issue. We know there is no easy single, solution but this work will reduce harm and improve patients’ quality of life. The approach we’re taking (setting up communities of practice and action learning sets, backed by high-quality data) will support colleagues in general practice to adopt new approaches to shared decision-making with patients and carers so that patients get the best possible results from their medicines.

While we have some exciting projects in the pipeline, we’re all too aware that frontline staff remain under pressure. Our focus of all our national projects is to carefully offer support to colleagues and then to co-design with frontline staff and patients how the innovations will work best in clinical pathways.

My volunteer work with King’s Global Health Partnerships offers me the chance to learn about health systems away from the UK and this summer I’ll be spending time volunteering in Zambia. The work I do with health systems in low- and middle-income settings always reminds me how fortunate we are to have the NHS and the opportunities it gives us. It also reminds me of the aspects of healthcare that are universal throughout the world – for example the need for good leadership and everything it takes to provide consistent and compassionate care. I learn a huge amount from healthcare professionals in other countries and get energy from the solidarity created by working with colleagues internationally. Feeling part of an international health and care community makes the goals we all have seem more achievable.

Learn more about the AHSN Network’s impacts in our recent impact report.

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