What the NHS can learn about innovation from Uber

What the NHS can learn about innovation from Uber

Sarah Ronald 21/10/2017 8

The need for smart, creative and affordable solutions is growing fast as the UK healthcare crisis deepens. Uber demonstrates how design-led innovation can drive industries forward.

Promoting Innovation & Organisational Change 

Enthusiasm and scorn followed last week’s reports that an NHS Trust has struck a deal for Uber to provide patient transport. Despite the controversy, the NHS might well have a thing or two to learn from its disruptive new partner, at least when it comes to setting precedents for an industry in the digital era.

Uber is best known as a taxi platform, but the company’s true mission is one of logistics. It’s concerned with the transport of people and goods between waypoints, which is why its diverse activities include food delivery, courier services and even distributing flu vaccinations. The notion of designing a pragmatic system that accomplishes efficient, seamless and cost-effective movement is a strong model of innovation for health and social care too.

Adopting the assertive attitude of a startup like Uber can strengthen the NHS to overcome challenges. In practice, that means changing the mindset and culture of the organisation, getting teams closer to customers, and ensuring a governance model that supports both experimentation and failure. This development doesn’t have to be sudden – starting small to show what’s possible before scaling up can be an excellent strategy.

At Nile, we’re passionate about exploring fresh approaches to complex problems, especially in healthcare. Back in January, we brought together professionals from the NHS and the voluntary sector to participate in a design hack focused on mental health. Through collaboration with data analysts, researchers and designers from our partner network and in-house team, together we began to map out digital solutions with the power to improve the healthcare services of tomorrow.

Data was a really important part of the day’s conversations. Gary Douglas, head of consultancy at analytics firm Lynchpin – one of our health hack partners – thinks data will be the driving force as the healthcare sector tackles modernisation. As he puts it:

You can unlock strong value in NHS data by layering it with other rich sources – location or socio-economic factors, for example. It’s about identifying the points of interaction and recognising that those are opportunities to both collect data and use it to improve the experience for end users.”

Developing Strategic Design Insights

In the next era of healthcare, patients’ expectations will be higher than ever. App-based consumer services like Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb have set a precedent for high-quality user experience across all areas of life. Healthcare is no different, as Birgit Mager, president of the Global Service Design Network, explains:

There’s a big challenge ahead in terms of adapting to those new benchmarks. The public sector has to raise the bar in what service provision means if it wants to create innovative offerings through partnership with the private sector.

As service designers, we know first-hand that collaborative projects can make all the difference to people’s lives, and add enormous value for the organisations that serve them. A few years ago, we worked with the NHS to create a digital health and symptom checker service that was the first clinically-approved tool of its kind anywhere in the world.

In a 12-month period after launch, a million people were referred for emergency medical care thanks to the symptom checker, while 6.5 million people were able to quickly identify their treatment needs without a GP appointment. The tool saved the health service money, helped allocate resources to areas with the most need, and relieved significant pressure on phone lines.

Input from internal NHS teams, developers and customers were all vital in achieving these remarkable outcomes. Designing within highly-regulated life and death moments is not easy, but through strategic design insights and a customer-centred approach, we made the service easier to access and more intuitive to use.

Using Data & Modernising Infrastructures

The challenge of delivering patient services in more convenient and user-friendly ways is well-recognised by the NHS. And as Isabel Hunt, director of improvement at NHS Digital, the national partner for technology and data in health and care, points out:

A lot of the most innovative thinking in healthcare is driven by the private sector. NHS organisations, such as NHS Digital, can add value when scale is needed, or when national interfaces or established standards are required to make an idea work effectively.

Upcoming plans to incorporate data from consumer health apps and devices into NHS systems will open up new opportunities for commercial solutions to meet public sector need. Combining those opportunities with the speediness of the service design approach – which can move projects from user research to functional prototype in a matter of weeks – means the potential for innovation is huge.

Often though, it’s the mindset of an organisation that ultimately determines success or failure. Bringing together the right people – such as service providers, frontline staff and patients – to develop and discuss solutions can move things forward more swiftly and productively than working in isolation. Uber could certainly benefit from this advice given its own mistakes in terms of establishing a positive work culture, particularly on the ground. After all, success has as much to do with people as it does tech. At Nile, we can help with both. When everyone’s needs are properly understood, and customer focus is put at the heart of design, simple solutions can lead to incredible outcomes.

Today, the need for the NHS to thrive and modernise is clear, and that means there’s never been a better time to think big, innovate and create in healthcare. Pioneers must accomplish the same winning proposition as Uber: effectiveness, seamlessness and cost-efficiency. For achieving that ambitious formula, service design makes a perfect partner.

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  • Stephen Exley

    In my opinion the NHS is a great service, but an unnecessary burden for the most part, I believe privatised healthcare is the way to go for the most part. I'm fine with my tax money going towards a cancer patient or someone with a serious condition, not someone who wants a toenail removed.

  • Luana Delgado

    The British public have absolutely no idea how lucky they are to live in Britain. I've lived in a few different countries, and I can honestly say the healthcare in Britain is fantastic. The doctors help you because they genuinely care, not because of how much money they're earning. You won't get turned away because you have the wrong insurance, or no insurance. I'm sick and tired of people whining about the NHS. Thank you for writing this interesting article.

  • Mike001

    I defiantly can see the NHS going private soon. Some places are doing that already. Mass immigration hasn't helped and cuts has made it worst. We should introduce a card system, so if your born in this country or have worked here for 10 years then you should get NHS for free. Show your card, get it checked and you be allowed to get treatment. If not, you will be charged for it unless you be able to prove you have one at a later date. Also introduce a tax, so everyone must pay into the NHS so we still be able to fund it. Better pay for the staff and better condition for people going for treatment. This will never happen but it wishful thinking.

  • Dr Ian Paterson

    The NHS is in deep crisis because of government funding cuts. As a cancer specialist with over 20 years experience, I can attest directly to this- private and overseas work have become the only options for many. We are all at breaking point.

  • Oliver White

    Thanks for sharing !!

  • Jazmine Wheeler

    Bless the good doctors of the world, the NHS is not what it appears to be

  • Margaret Spector

    There are many good people working in the NHS and being cared for by it. Unfortunately, a bunch of men and women in suits get to run it from the top. They sit in the HoC in Westminster. Sometimes, I really don't know why they are allowed to sit there and not get a mob turfing them out.

  • Kyle Mitchell

    I learnt a great deal from this and to help the nhs carry on is by selfhelping yourself by keeping fit



Sarah Ronald

Company Guru

Sarah is an entrepreneur and investor in early start-ups. She is the Founder of Nile, an award winning Service Design firm.  Additional appointments have included, an elected Executive member of the British Interactive Media Association (BIMA), advisor to the Scottish Financial Fintech Strategy group, the Design Council and Number 10 Downing Street Digital Advisory Board. Her main areas of focus include, use of new technologies to improve the way we live and work, and the need to evolve company cultures to achieve sustainable change. Sarah holds an MA in Psychology from the University of Aberdeen and an MSc in Human Computer Interaction from the Heriot-Watt University.


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