Exploring the complexity of spreading innovation in the NHS: Lessons from a review of Academic Health Science Network activity



  • Prof Harry Scarbrough, Centre for Healthcare Innovation Research & Faculty of Management, The Business School, City, University of London


  • Dr Andrew Sibley, Wessex Academic Health Science Network
  • Dr Sarah Robens, South West Academic Health Science Network
  • Dr Alexandra Ziemann, Centre for Healthcare Innovation Research, City, University of London

While the demand for innovation in health and social care has increased, spreading innovations beyond initial pilots into mainstream services remains a challenge. The Academic Health Science Networks (AHSN) were set up in 2013 by NHS England to support their local health and social care ecosystem to spread and adopt innovation at pace and scale. They provide a unique “natural laboratory” to gain a deeper understanding of ‘what works’ in spreading innovations.

In this workshop, we will present findings from a mixed-method study that explored how AHSNs have been spreading innovations across the NHS between 2018-20, based on 143 interviews and three focus groups with staff from all 15 AHSNs. We will present the study’s key findings in three 10-minute presentations followed by a 20-minute interactive discussion with the audience on their views and experiences regarding the spread of innovations. The first presentation will uncover how AHSNs have operationalised their spread activity, how spread approaches were linked to successful and unsuccessful spread, and how contextual factors have affected spread activity. The second presentation will explore changes in AHSN spread activity during the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the third presentation will identify key success factors for spreading one national programme, Transfer of Care Around Medicines (TCAM).

Our findings suggest that successful spread work is often complex, changeable, resource intensive, and always requires ‘localising’ - there is no simple recipe for success. Engaging with the complexity of context was critical to successful rollouts. The workshop offers lessons at the operational level for change agents and NHS staff engaged in spreading innovations, for senior managers and policymakers to determine capacity and resources required for spread, and the academic community by providing empirical insights into the operationalisation of spread in real world settings.