"Innovation" is an NHS buzzword. It shouldn't be.

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

“Innovation” has been an NHS buzzword for quite some time. It’s how they think they are going to make money. The word peppers Andrew Lansley’s sentences and appears on every NHS website. It turns conference speeches into tongue twisters and makes job titles too long to fit on to name badges. But let’s cliché this down. Being innovative is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are . . . you  aren’t. The NHS isn't.

Not that promoting innovation is a bad aim. One bright idea, one new drug and you can potentially generate billions. This is the thought in the minds of the policymakers who have directed several taxpayer billions to this end.

But here’s the problem. A great deal of the money has gone towards creating “facilitatory groups”, such as the National Institute for Health Research – boards that manage the interaction between NHS employees with the new ideas, and the companies that might want to invest in them. Yet the interaction is an unhappy one. The inventive employees must now fill out a vast amount of paperwork and jump over many more hurdles than they used to. The boards are large and unwieldy, absorb a huge amount of capital and are made up largely of ex-nurses, inexperienced in business and, by training, highly risk averse.

Being unwilling to take risks is all very well in patient care but it can lead to utter stupidity when it comes to investment decisions. This was perhaps best demonstrated in 2006 by the US economists Uri Gneezy and George Wu, in one simple, cruel experiment.

Participants were asked to state how much they would pay for a $50 book token, a $100 book token, and to take part in a lottery in which they would win one or the other. It turned out that on average they were willing to pay $45 for the $100 token, and $26 for the $50 token.

So far so predictable. But then, in the lottery, things became a little uncertain and the participants started acting ridiculously. Given a 50 per cent chance of winning the more expensive token and a 50 per cent chance of winning the cheaper one, subjects were only willing to pay an average of $16. This was a situation where the worst possible outcome was getting the less expensive book token, but they valued it less than one in which they were guaranteed to get that token. Madness. Unless people are experienced in business, the smallest whiff of uncertainty can completely unsettle them.

Selling out

But even when these inexperienced NHS boards do take a risk on an idea, they simply don’t have the capital to protect it properly. The new drug or surgical device is therefore sold off at a very early stage of development, relatively cheaply, to private companies. If it turns out to cure cancer, it is the that company profits, not the NHS.

Far from being a profit-generating “centre for innovation”, then, the NHS has become a feeding ground for lean, mean American companies who cherry-pick the best ideas and capitalise on the revenue. It’s time for the NHS to take a lead from the private sector where it counts. They need to stop investing in “facilitators” and start investing properly in ideas. That’s where the money is.

Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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