Cross-sector collaboration in digital health
By Carmen E Lefevre, on 8 October 2016
By Dr Fiona Adshead, Chief Wellbeing Officer at Bupa
Earlier this year, at the UCL Behaviour Change Conference on Digital Health and Wellbeing, I chaired a thought-provoking discussion on Challenges to creating sustainable, high impact interventions.
One of the central themes of that discussion – and of other conversations over the two days – was: how can we get better collaboration across academics, researchers, healthcare professionals and industry in digital health.
Why is collaboration so important?
If there is one message that came through loud and clear it’s that digital health isn’t just about digital.
Whilst digital technologies offer us unprecedented ways to engage, enable, quantify, measure and tailor interventions – digital health fundamentally comes down to changing human behaviour.
Those who attended the conference may remember the brilliant video ‘Uninvited Guests’, wherein an older man has a range of ‘smart’ devices to improve his health foisted onto him by his well-meaning children. What this video so wonderfully demonstrates is that technology alone does not guarantee better health, where human beings and behaviour are concerned.
The best technology is useless without designing for context and starting from a deep understanding of the individual. Harnessed properly, however, technology can play a powerful role at every stage of the behaviour change journey – offerings us scalable, targeted and economical ways to transform outcomes.
Without collaboration across sectors, we cannot fully address the complex, multi-faceted challenges of creating sustained behavioural change, or realise the full potential of what can be achieved.
We need to bring together different perspectives, resources, evidence and creativity to properly understand the problems we want solve and how we can best do it.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to effective collaboration, but there are certainly some guiding principles.
Collaboration of any kind – even within an organisation or within a single sector – is inherently challenging. Differing priorities, ‘cultural’ differences and conflicts of interest can all stunt effective collaboration. However, if managed well, they can create a very positive tension, driving innovation and dynamism.
For me, some key principles are:
- Choose the right partners: As in life, the right partners are not necessarily those who are most similar to us, but those who share our underlying values and complement our strengths. It may be less about sector, and more about ambitions and what skills and resources each partner can bring.
- Don’t overlook the private sector: Speaking from my current vantage point in industry, it is important not to see the private sector as one homogenous group. It is a much more nuanced landscape of different kinds of businesses, with different values, business models, geographical footprints and expertise. By thinking more laterally about who you might find shared value with, you can unlock collaboration opportunities beyond the traditional territories of corporate sponsorship or charitable donations.
- Find the shared value: It is very tempting to start from what matters to us and what we need. However, just talking about what we care about tends to switch others off. Whether you’re approaching potential partners or working together on a shared agenda, it is really important to focus on shared value. You need to understand each others’ priorities, and find the areas of overlap. During my time in Government, I saw many people come to speak to ministers about a particular challenge or cause. Very few would think through why it was relevant to the minister, but if they did come at it from that angle, they got far better results.
- Agree on a clear, common goal: Simple to say but often hard to do – you need to be clear on what you are trying to achieve. If your ambition is clear and owned by all, it is much easier to overcome any conflicts or challenges that arise.
- Recognise and encourage diversity: It is often easier to work with familiar organisations, people, evidence or techniques. However, the point of collaboration is to reach a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. So we need to look beyond the obvious and be willing to leave our comfort zones. We need to accept and respect differences, find ways of working that play to everyone’s strengths, and be clear about what each party can bring.
- Be human: Collaboration is ultimately about people and power, trust and relationships. When it is successful, it is because those involved are willing to give up some power to others. Collaborative relationships must be characterised by trust, transparency and a willingness to have frank conversations in the pursuit of a common goal
Putting it into practice
Collaboration is something we are passionate about at Bupa – we know we can unlock far more with others than we can alone. By working with UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change we aim to bring evidence into our practice, and share what works to create tomorrow’s evidence.
As someone who has worked across sectors – at Bupa, the WHO, in government and as a doctor – I know it can be hard to cross the barriers between public, private, NGO, IGO and academia.
It can initially seem we are coming from totally different worlds and – even if we find potential partners – we are speaking different languages and can’t get genuine, effective collaboration off the ground.
However, I genuinely believe these are barriers that can be and should be overcome – by following principles like the above and being open-minded to the possibilities.
The bottom line: try to think laterally about who you could work with. Don’t start from their sector, start from their values and ambitions. And always think through how you can approach people in terms of what matters to them, as well as what matter to you.
You never know – they might be as passionate about improving health by changing behaviour as you are.
BIO: Fiona is Bupa’s Chief Wellbeing Officer, and is responsible for globally leading work on wellbeing, behaviour change and workplace health. Before joining Bupa, Fiona was Director of Chronic Disease and Health Promotion at the World Health Organization, with five years’ experience as Deputy Chief Medical Officer and Director General in the UK Government, responsible for health improvement and health inequalities. Fiona is currently an international adviser to the Royal College of Physicians, a visiting Professor at UCL, Brunel, Exeter, and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She is a Senior Associate at Cambridge University’s Sustainability Leadership Programme, where she teaches regularly. Fiona is also a trustee of the UK Health Forum and the London Sustainability Exchange.