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TechnologyMar 22, 2021

In a Q&A for PhysioUpdate, Sean Buttner explains what his role as a digital 'NHS navigator' entails

Eleven years after graduating as a physiotherapist, Sean Buttner has a foot in two camps with DigitalHealth.London. As well as liaising with NHS healthcare staff across London on digital innovations, Sean supports six innovative digital health companies on this year's Accelerator programme. PhysioUpdate editor Ian A McMillan asks the questions.

Photo Credit: DigitalHealth.London
Sean the 'navigator' is also a 'renovator' – doing up an 18th century house in his spare time

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Tell us about your career path

I worked in the musculoskeletal (MSK) side of physiotherapy after graduating from Manchester Metropolitan University in 2010. I enjoyed my job and progressed well clinically, gaining some solid patient mileage under my belt and ultimately got to a crossroads: either to go down the advanced practice route or go into an operational management role.

When the NHS Navigator job came up ... I couldn’t resist joining. Every day I get to broaden my horizons in the wider healthcare system and make a positive impact across a wider staff and patient population [Sean Buttner]I think part of being physiotherapist is trying to solve a problem and make things better. I have always been driven by that aim. I was lucky to be working with some really forward-thinking people and so was inspired to move into an operational management role to look for ways to improve how we worked.

I came across the Health Innovation Network (HIN), the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) for south London and began regularly attending their clinical forums. Through that, I got to see first-hand the innovative work being done across south London. It really opened my eyes to the opportunities digital health has to help not only patients but the health systems as a whole.

What is DigitalHealth.London?

DigitalHealth.London is based at the HIN and is delivered by all three London AHSNs and MedCity. We enable the digital transformation of the NHS and social care through our four work programmes.

I learned about the two flagship programmes the Accelerator – which supports digital health companies with products or services that meet the challenges of the NHS and social care sector in London – and the Digital Pioneer Fellowship, which supports NHS staff on the ground delivering digital transformation projects.

When the NHS Navigator job came up with DigitalHealth.London, I couldn’t resist joining this innovative and dynamic team. Every day now I get to broaden my horizons in the wider healthcare system and make a positive impact across a wider staff and patient population.

What does a typical day at DigitalHealth.London entail?

We are quite a cohesive team and have a daily catch-up call in the morning to set out our priorities and any support we need. My day is usually a combination of meetings with a variety of our NHS partners to understand their ‘pain points’ and what areas of improvement they are looking to innovate.

It can be fascinating learning about the different clinical or workforce challenges. Then the rest of my day is providing bespoke support to the digital health companies on the current cohort of the Accelerator.

There are 20 companies in total, and I support six at the moment. The support I give them can be everything from helping refine their NHS value proposition, supporting their evidence generation journey to facilitating meetings and introductions with specific NHS decision makers in the companies’ specific clinical areas.

Are physiotherapists good at embracing the potential of the digital world?

I feel there are similarities across all health professionals – you have your early adaptors who lead the way for those who are later to embrace any change let alone digital innovations.

By the nature of their work, physiotherapists are strong advocates of behaviour change – whether they realise it or not. I believe that drive for change and solving problems means physiotherapists are well placed to be advocates for digital health.

The real potential of digital is yet to be harnessed fully but the NHS response to the pandemic involved the adoption of new technology of lots of physiotherapy pathways, from the start to the end.

Can you give some examples?

For example, in an MSK pathway, digital technology is being used in automation of the backend referral process: appointment booking systems, digital triage, virtual consultations, delivering exercise classes via video platforms, remote monitoring of patients and symptoms and even outcome measure capture.

That’s not mentioning the similar technology being used by colleagues in acute settings, such as neuro and respiratory ones, to manage their patients. I know there will be some elements of these pathways that will return to the post-Covid-19 ways of working, but many will remain digital and many more may become digital now.

Using technology in the right way will lead to better working experiences for physiotherapists, improve service efficiencies and, ultimately, lead to better patient experiences and outcomes. 

Any examples of other physiotherapists who are leading developments?

One of our other work streams at DigitalHealth.London is our Digital Pioneers Fellowship. We are supporting a number of allied health professionals on this year’s intake and are lucky to have two physiotherapists on it: Ben Wanless and Christina Sothinathan.

•       both Ben and Christina are clinical lead physiotherapists, who respectively work on projects on implementing a digital self-management solution and improving access to high-quality digital healthcare for all patients

•       there is also the Digital and Informatics Physiotherapy group – #DIPG – that has a growing membership of physiotherapists leading the way in digital development

Has your work been affected by Covid-19 and how have you responded?

Luckily, a lot of my work translates well to remote working – something I’ve been doing since March 2020. There can be some long days in front of the screen and for some sessions I’d love to be in a room with the companies mapping out a strategic plan rather than doing it remotely.

We’ve embraced the use of all the virtual platforms available to us and are very much still adding value to the system. An interim evaluation of the Accelerator in April 2020 showed that for every £1 spend on the programme through the AHSNs, we save the NHS £14.50.

I’m really proud of that and that so many of the companies we have supported were at the forefront of the NHS response to Covid-19.

How do you relax away from work?

In true physio style, I do like to exercise – either getting out on my bike or swinging a kettlebell in the garden. I recently bought an 18th century listed house (sounds better than it is), which takes up most of my spare time with a long list of renovation jobs.

DigitalHealth.London is a collaborative programme delivered by MedCity, and London’s three Academic Health Science Networks: UCL Partners, Imperial College Health Partners and the Health Innovation Network. Among other bodies, it is supported by NHS England (London).

To find out more, visit: https://digitalhealth.london

Author: Ian A McMillan
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