What really counts – keeping humanity at the heart of digital innovation

What really counts – keeping humanity at the heart of digital innovation

Digital innovation is going to save the NHS.

We use digital in every other aspect of our lives so why not the NHS?

So the hyperbole and the mantra goes. But what if, in our fetishisation of digital, we get too focused on shiny products and forget what really counts?

This moving blog post by health economist Dr Chris Gibbons about his family’s interactions with health services, when his dad was very ill, made me pause and reflect on how we keep values of humanity at the heart of efforts to innovate and improve health services. Here is a section of the blog post which emphasises that it was person-centred  and goal-orientated care that made the biggest difference to Chris’ dad:

“Innovation has many guises. Innovative ways of thinking about the hospital system. From the point of admission to the successful discharge and rehabilitation of people in a place of their preference then linking up that system seamlessly with health and social care system. We need to emphasise the importance that people doing Neil’s [care worker] job have in linking that all together as a person centred, goal oriented approach to recovery and rehabilitation. That’s where the real value in innovation sits. It doesn’t fit neatly into a Markov model, or have fancy branding and the backing of a pharma company that’ll send you to Honolulu for a conference. But it is the kind of innovation that we should be judging against all the other “innovations” that do”

How do we assess what really counts and what is going to make the biggest difference to patients when we have finite resources and the opportunity costs of innovation can be significant?

First and foremost, truly understanding what patients value has to be at the centre; human-centred design approaches are important. More than just tools though, an orientation towards empathic curiosity about people’s lives and what matters to them most are key. Carving out time and resources to do this properly will go some way to avoiding a focus on the shiny stuff that may not have the biggest positive impact or which could even be a distraction.

So can we blend digital innovation approaches, such as lean startup and human-centred design with asset based community development approaches which seek to start with people and communities build on their potential? This simple framework (see feature image above) from Nurture Development could be adapted to challenge us to consider the value of an idea for innovation – what it will restore, replace, enhance or mutate into. The NASSS framework which I’ve previously blogged about encourages us to consider human and other factors which may mean an innovation fails to be adopted and sustained.

As part of the 2018 Leeds Digital Festival we at mHabitat are curating a health and care strand and we will be running a number of events which bring this sort of thinking together for a shared conversation. You will be able to book on the event via our website once we have finalised the details. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your views either on this website or via Twitter.


  1. Hiya

    Interesting. I thought there was a dissonance between the blog content and it’s title and I wonder if that’s where we sometimes get tripped up. The blog content has at its heart a focus on improving care in the very broadest sense, innovating in a micro sense. Staff do this all the time, making micro adjustments at times to what they do to meet the needs of an individual. It’s a bit l8ke when you are faced with a practical task and you don’t quite have the right tools, so you are creative and use what you do have. I think digital is a component of this rather than the thing itself and I wonder if in our enthusiasm we are over emphasising the digital part? X

    • Thank you for your feedback Anne. yes I completely agree that digital is just an enabler. It seems particularly in the digital space we run the risk of getting overly product focus and less on the practical task as you say.


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