Industry Spotlight

“The darkest hour is always before dawn”: Emma McGuigan and Chris Oliver on Winter Pressures and the Potential of Technology

Distilled Post Editorial Team

The NHS Executive Strategy Summit (NESS) represents a collaboration between meetHealth and Proud2Bops, with the aim of bringing together Chief Operating Officers (COOs) from across the NHS to work together and find solutions to pressing issues including patient flow, winter pressures and digital strategies. 

In the buildup to the event on 7th November, Distilled Post sat down with Chris Oliver and Emma McGuigan.  Respectively they are the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Operating Officer of the Lancashire and South Cumbria Foundation Trust (LSCft), and the conversation covered winter pressures, resilience and the potential of technological innovation in optimising patient flow and freeing up beds. 

The areas the LSCft has oversight of include the Fylde Coast and within it Blackpool, one of the most deprived deciles in the country according to English Indices of Deprivation data collected in 2019. COO Emma commented on the situation facing LSCft as winter approaches: “urgent care’s not had a break”. Data from the British Red Cross in 2021 revealed that there were around twice as many attendances to A&E departments in England for the 10% of the population living in the most deprived areas (2.2 million), compared with the least deprived 10% (1.1 million). Emma found similarities between the situation facing the NHS this winter and last; while the winter of 2022 was set in the context of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2023 hospitals and clinical practices are regathering following significant and sustained industrial action over the summer. The key strategy for the short term, Emma surmised, was “preparedness across individuals and services” - put simply, “you do as much early planning as you can do”.

She views the longer term solution to winter resilience as a rather more difficult question. “It’s probably unsustainable to keep on going like this, we have to go into winter in better positions”. Chris added that the vision for a longer term solution had to be wider and consider more variables in its scope, including social care and the impacts of austerity: “the fix for the NHS can’t just involve the NHS”. 

The discussion moved to the potentially crucial role of technology in developing a longer-term solution. Chris identified AI as an extremely promising tool, particularly in supporting people to live healthier lives at home. Technology, he asserted, could help surpass the barriers that currently exist to obstruct consistently successful care in the community, which in turn can free up vital bed space on wards. With regards to virtual wards, Chris suggested that what was needed was “to give clinical teams the space and freedom to develop them with tech companies”. He described within his own Trust an exciting new model of care forming; focusing on community care and a move away from a focus on inpatient beds. Chris cited examples across the world where there is smaller bed capacity and money, which has already been released, being re-invested into community care - with a resultant decrease in occupancy numbers. Improving care in the community eases significant burdens on capacity without causing poorer outcomes. As Chris asserted, “in financial terms - for every one person in an acute bed, we can look after 39 people in a community team, keeping them closer to family, friends and their support network”. 

Despite the challenges ahead, there was still room for positivity. Emma shared that “I’m really glad that so many of my team are going to NESS. They get some time with peers, time to prepare and take a breath, reflect ahead of winter”. Such spaces to share experiences and collaborate on solutions are vital for those in NHS management positions, particularly as the first official day of winter for the NHS - 1 November - approaches. As Emma says, “we’ve done it before, we can do it again. And the darkest hour is always before the dawn”. 

The NESS is on the 7th of November in London, organised by Meet Health Events and Proud2bOps.

To learn more about the event, visit: https://www.meethealthevents.com/nhs-executive-strategy-summit-ness-2023