Walk in their shoes: why empathy is the key to unlocking true innovation in healthcare


If you haven’t experienced it, how would you know what it feels like?  Dr Anas Nader, NHS doctor and co-founder of Patchwork Health explains why the digital revolution isn’t taking off in the NHS as it should. And offers a simple way to fix the issue 


If you read the headlines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that healthtech is being heartily embraced across all levels of the NHS – swooping in to solve its woes. Indeed, the creation of NHSX and the digital mindset of the new Health Secretary have created a culture within the health service which is embracing technology like never before. Yet ask clinicians on the front line what they think of the latest gizmo or system and you’re more likely to get an eye roll rather than evangelism.  

The reality is that a lot of the tech and innovation on offer today does stand to make a big impact on the NHS. Where it’s falling down is the approach to implementation. How new offerings are launched and incorporated into our existing system leaves a lot to be desired. Over-stretched clinicians are battling a wave of new initiatives that, in theory, are set to make their lives easier. In reality, they are adding to their daily burden.  

Know your user 

So how can we ensure clinicians and Trusts truly benefit from these innovations? The answer: empathy.   

Whilst empathy might not sound like a natural bed-fellow to cutting edge tech, we must remember that context is everything. A product roll-out at Google HQ will never shakedown in the same way as introducing a new software system to a busy A&E department. The product itself, the way in which it’s introduced, how people are expected to use it; everything must be bespoke for the environment.

And that’s where empathy comes in. If you don’t understand the minutiae of how an NHS ward works, or sympathise with the complex challenges that come with being a clinician, how on earth are you going to create innovation that makes a difference? 

We will continue to see new systems or products falling flat (with precious resources wasted along the way) unless we put empathy at the heart of the NHS’ digital strategy. The teams and start-ups behind any healthtech proposition must take the time to explore the unique challenges that come with working in our health service. They must work with frontline staff and truly listen to their needs and priorities. They must look to form partnerships and foster collaboration, rather than seeking to disrupt.  

From my own experience when it comes to working within and with the NHS, the presence of empathy has strong bearing in long-term success. Our NHS staffing software, Patchwork, was conceived by following direct experience navigating flexible working within the NHS as junior doctors. And our original roll-out took the form of a public-private partnership with Chelsea and Westminster hospital; empathy with the end users was built into the DNA of the whole initiative.  

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Less disruption, more humility 

In the fast-paced world of tech start-ups, it’s all too easy to lose touch with the realities of your users or customers. But by ‘living’ the problem we were trying to solve, then remaining as close to the ground as possible whilst we built a solution, we retained empathy with frontline staff and management teams. This means we’ve built a product that Trusts need and that NHS staff actually want to use. 

Dr Ansa Nader

While that might sound simplistic, health tech start-ups all too often fail to fully empathise with the institution they are ultimately looking to sell to. The NHS is unique, complex and multi-layered. Its structure is by no means perfect, but it handles a mind-boggling complexity of challenges 24 hours a day, every single day of the year. For the 1.5 million people who make that happen, there is barely a chance to catch their breath in the daily quest to keep the show on the road.  

Healthtech start-ups who turn up with a Silicon Valley attitude or disruptive mindset often fail to make the lives of these clinicians easier, despite that being their intention. After decades of failed IT roll-outs and countless ‘innovation’ initiatives abandoned, there’s a deep (and understandable) sense of change fatigue on NHS wards. Those who don’t account for this, or take the time to engage with stakeholders at grassroots level, will flounder when it comes to adoption of their tech. And, when that happens, it’s ultimately Trust budgets and clinicians’ patience which suffer the most.  

And that’s why empathy is the key to unlocking truly impactful innovation in the NHS. We must ensure those creating technology for our health service put clinicians, patients and Trusts at the centre of their priorities. Whilst jazzy technology might be eye-catching, the ultimate priority must be engaging the hearts and minds of those who’ll use it. 

About the author

With well over 100 years experience between us, we've been around the editorial and medical blocks a few times. But we're still as keen as any young pup to root out what's new and inspiring.

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