The NHS has always had an innate desire to drive scientific and technological progress. Harnessing this could be key to the future of the NHS, writes Dr Lennard YW Lee, Associate Professor at The University of Oxford.

The NHS Long Term Workforce Plan is a great plan to increase staff numbers. It outlines approaches of how to do it, and it has every possibility of success.

However, sometimes, if an important ingredient is missed from a recipe, there’s the risk that the cake isn’t quite the masterpiece that a chef had envisaged. As a cancer researcher, I was surprised to find that, where science, research and technology are mentioned, they were only mentioned in terms of the need to upskill the workforce, or as a potentially new, separate demand on the workforce.

While it is unlikely that the authors were implying that science, research and technology are a “burden” to healthcare systems, the completely opposite is actually the case. If applied correctly, science, research and technology are tools, that will empower our staff and help solve the NHS workforce issue.

Harnessing the desire to innovate

The NHS has always been an engine for innovative change, pushing the boundaries of what was possible. As laid out by NHS’ CEO, Amanda Pritchard, at the NHS Confed conference 2023 as part of the NHS’s 75th Birthday, the fabric of the NHS is to drive milestone after milestone, achievement after achievement. The organisation gave the world its first modern hip replacement, the first CT scan, the first combined heart and lung transplant, the first baby born after IVF, the first heart surgery carried out by a remote-controlled robot. And, of course, the world’s first Covid-19 vaccine delivered outside a trial.

While our best NHS staff – our nurses, doctors, managers, secretaries, pharmacists, radiologists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists – are content to deliver standard-level care today, within them sits a desire to look to the future and to deliver tomorrow’s care today.

Science, research and technology are the magic ingredients that bring staff into the system, stop them moving to other sectors early, keep them motivated to do better, make their and everyone’s lives easier, and let them achieve their individual greatest potential.

This innate desire of our staff to drive science, research and technology innovation is rarely acknowledged and must be highlighted. Specifically, by empowering staff, embedding time for science, research and technology into everyone’s job and giving them time to advance on these initiatives, the NHS could immediately keep staff motivated and provide transformative benefits to patient care. Science, research and technology programmes need to be ringfenced into everyone’s time and promoted for those who want to dedicate their career to them.

Furthermore, as noted by the O’Shaughnessy independent review, the steps required to embed science, research and technology and to improve commercial clinical trials in the UK system are simple. Clinical trials give transformative benefits to patients domestically and worldwide, and underpin the UK’s ambition to become a science superpower.

Building on Covid-19 success

Finally, over the last few years, the United Kingdom has shown leadership in its ability to mobilise private sector investment and inspire a seamless collaboration between its scientists, pharmaceutical companies, regulators, and NHS to develop new products like coronavirus vaccine. These benefited the world and led to our path towards freedom from Covid-19. Science, research and technology endeavours of this fashion, within our healthcare system, gave our staff a sense of mission and huge sense of job satisfaction. It created jobs in our universities, in industry, in healthcare and inspired a generation. It also ultimately saved tens of millions of lives.

We are already seeing clear evidence of how science, research and technology partnerships can empower and reinvigorate the workforce. The UK’s recently announced partnership to advance cancer vaccines with BioNTech has led to the system opening cancer vaccine trials and hospitals in record time, driven significant inwards investment, and enthused and motivated staff. It is expected that this project will act to drive more science, research and technology-minded people into the cancer workforce, helping address workforce issues. Our cancer researchers wish to be global leaders, and advancing cancer vaccines will establish this.

To conclude, the NHS Long Term Workforce Plan is a wonderful start. It is likely to work, however, we must ensure that our staff are able to follow their passions and for many this will require the bravery to embed science, research and technology into the fabric of the NHS. A newly transformed healthcare system, infused with greater science, research and technology capability will be a win-win situation. It will solve the major issues of this generation, address the multiple workforce issues, drive our country to success globally, and provide transformative improvements to care for patients.

Professor Dr Lennard YW Lee is Associate Professor at the University of Oxford and senior clinical research fellow at the University of Birmingham.