Innovation Perspectives is OAHP’s Q&A series with OAHP Board Members and partner organisation leads. Professor Keith Channon, OAHP Director, talks about OAHP’s role, the vision for academic health partnerships beyond 2025, and why bringing together the right mix of people is critical for Oxford’s clinical research.
“…If we can attract the right researchers and clinical leaders to Oxford, and if we can continue to fertilize a shared environment across NHS and academic partners in all areas of healthcare delivery, we will continue to generate the most innovative research for the benefit of patients and train the next generation of health leaders. It is a challenge, but that’s what Oxford Academic Health Partners is committed to help our partner organisations achieve in the next five years.”
From a research leadership perspective, why is it important for Oxford’s already well-established health and care innovation ecosystem to have the support of an Academic Health Science Centre (AHSC)?
Oxford’s strengths in research and healthcare delivery are world-leading in quality, with enormous scale and scope. Whilst these are all very positive things, there is the potential risk that amongst that amongst such complexity, opportunities may be missed.
Typically, innovations and inventions either get lost in development or take a long time to surface, and an even longer time before they benefit patients. So the role of an academic health science centre like the Oxford Academic Health Partners (OAHP) is to look for opportunities where the processes and pathways involved in promoting collaborative research, and developing innovations from research, can be catalysed and streamlined. This supports the best research to lead to innovations that can rapidly benefit patients and healthcare systems.
Through this process, we also support education and teaching, so we can make sure that both the research and clinical workforces are appropriately configured and have the expertise to support research, and take advantage of new innovations.
This is the infrastructure that the OAHP seeks to put together and maintain across Oxford, working across our five partners. The result is a larger, cross-disciplinary research environment and a more free-flowing innovation pipeline. Some of these innovations will go straight into healthcare, some will be spun out as SMEs, and others may lead to collaborations with existing companies.
You have been in the role of OAHP Director since 2020, having previously led a successful Biomedical Research Centre. What insights have you gained from working across the region’s University and NHS partners that you perhaps didn’t have when you came into post?
My role as OAHP director has cemented my impression that the key to organisations being vibrant and effective in their mission (when it’s related to research, education, and healthcare delivery) is that they have to be outward looking and build partnerships. Their leaders have to lead by example in terms of building institutional collaborations at a strategic level which are complimentary to the individual collaborations that researchers and clinicians tend to make on their own. This nurtures an environment that openly supports collaboration and enables clinical research infrastructure to be designed in ways that are useful for both research and patient care.
Another key consideration is whether our healthcare professionals are appropriately equipped to support research and deliver clinical care that takes advantage of innovations, and even contribute to the next generation of invention and innovation. If that’s left to one partner, they’ll have a training programme that tends to address one set of priorities, but if we take advantage of the insights of other academic health partners across Oxford, then we can deliver an integrated approach to training the workforce that puts Oxford in a very strong position in the coming years.
OAHP’s AHSC designation is up for renewal in 2025, and the external landscape has shifted considerably in the past 3 years. What is your vision for Oxford’s University and NHS partnerships beyond 2025 and how might OAHP help to deliver this?
In the last two years, the ways in which OAHP partner organisations have worked together have been exemplified more powerfully than anywhere else globally. There is almost no part of the world’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic that wasn’t addressed in some way by Oxford clinical scientists working together.
So the fact that we have an integrated joint research office in Oxford across our universities and NHS trusts enables rapid approval of significant collaborative projects like the RECOVERY or PRINCIPLE Trials of Covid-19 treatments and makes possible the clinical research behind the Oxford AstraZeneca Vaccine, for example. It’s fantastic research like this, embedded in clinical environments and cutting across disciplines, that addresses healthcare challenges with innovative solutions. This is what gives us this unique and exciting strength, and it’s these principles of cross-organisational interdisciplinarity that the OAHP will continue to pursue.
Secondly, we also need to consider the upcoming healthcare challenges we face. Alongside tackling health inequalities and access to healthcare prevention is the challenge of building and maintaining an appropriate NHS workforce.
This isn’t just about filling vacancies but supporting our partners to create rewarding career opportunities that attract and retain the right people to deliver the sorts of innovations and transformational change that we all hope to see more of in the NHS. To support this, we are fortunate to be working in partnership with Oxford Brookes University’s nationally prominent nursing and midwifery school and their education programmes for allied health professionals.
Thirdly, since the last designation, we now have the Integrated Care Board across Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West, so the NHS is expected to work in a more joined-up way across the region. This means that through the Academic Health Science Network, our partners are now able to roll out innovations across the wider region, rather than into a single hospital or single city.
A major focus will need to be on prevention as a means to reduce the burden of diseases for people living with them, and their costs to health care systems. Prevention isn’t only about the general message that everyone should eat and live healthily. It’s about using technology to identify who is most at risk, and how we can target diagnostic testing and drug treatments to prevent the serious adverse events that are the consequences of common diseases – such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and mental illness.
Given the complex pressures facing our NHS both locally and nationally, what can be done to ensure that patients and service users continue to have opportunities to access new technologies, treatments and improved service pathways via Oxford’s clinical research programmes?
Our ecosystem of combined University and healthcare partnerships provides the kind of permissive, supportive and proactively catalytic environments needed for all people in universities and healthcare settings to be able to do research. That doesn’t mean that everyone is only thinking about research – the NHS is enormously busy with time pressures and resource constraints that are very real.
Oxford University Hospitals and the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trusts together have around 1,100 consultants, about 25% of these are employed by the University and are indistinguishable from the NHS-employed consultants, but they are there for their additional research and teaching responsibilities. By the same token, NHS consultants at each of Oxford’s hospitals are overwhelmingly likely to be heavily involved in research and teaching, and as a result many of them have been awarded University professorships. One of Oxford Brookes University’s unique contributions is via academic leaders in nursing, midwifery and allied health professions such as physiotherapy.
That means that Oxford has a much greater focus on healthcare provision compared to other cities of its size, which the people of our region share and benefit from. This privileged environment is not random. It requires a level of institutional commitment, resource, vision and investment over many years. This means coming together to compete hard to win the sort of funding that’s exemplified by the recent five-year awards to our two Biomedical Research Centres. This funding buys out time, pays for research nurses, medical equipment and infrastructure, and attracts, retains and supports key people.
And ultimately, all this is driven by people. So if we can attract the right researchers and clinical leaders to Oxford, and if we can continue to fertilize a shared environment across NHS and academic partners in all areas of healthcare delivery, we will continue to generate the most innovative research for the benefit of patients and train the next generation of health leaders. It is a challenge, but that’s what Oxford Academic Health Partners is committed to help our partner organisations achieve in the next five years.