People: Stepping up in our time of need [NE Times feature]
The NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) provides a range of support services to staff and users of the NHS, and so maintaining ‘business as usual’ during these unprecedented times has been crucial. But, as Alison Cowie found out when she talked to CEO Michael Brodie two weeks after the lockdown was announced, the organisation that has hitherto been characterised for its efficient and technologically savvy silent running has been finding its voice – with major reverberations for NHS trusts, frontline workers, patients, the Government and the public
The Newcastle-headquartered NHS Business Services Authority (NHSBSA) is described as an arm’s length body of the Department of Health and Social Care. It provides a range of critical central services for NHS organisations, contractors, patients and the public, such as NHS prescription services, NHS Pensions, NHS Jobs and Help with Health Costs.
Statistics – 10,000 payments totalling £1 billion to community pharmacies each month, three million members of the NHS pension scheme and more than a billion prescription items processed annually, among them – show the staggering impact NHSBSA has on NHS staff and its users. But, as an organisation, it maintains a relatively low profile.
Michael Brodie was appointed CEO in September 2019. He came to the role from Public Health England but, having previously worked at NHSBSA for more than seven years, latterly as its finance director, he was acutely aware of the power of the NHSBSA – which, like all healthcare organisations, has been considerably tested over the past few months.
As coronavirus has taken hold across the world, Michael – who is in regular contact with Public Health England and the Government – describes three priorities for the authority: to maintain the health, safety and wellbeing of its 3000 nationwide staff, to ensure its vital services continue uninterrupted, and to identify and deliver capabilities in the immediate fight against the pandemic.
In addressing the first of these three priorities, Michael explains that wherever possible, NHSBSA employees are now working from home. This has ensured that those who must come into the office are kept to an absolute minimum and for whom strict social distancing measures have been put in place.
“From day one [of the lockdown], I asked our most senior clinician to join our leadership team to ensure that every decision we make is using the best possible medical advice,” the chief executive continues.
But an organisation that prides itself on its award-winning staff wellbeing strategy, safety goes beyond physical health.
As well as continuing its regular staff welfare services – where staff can receive ongoing confidential support – Michael reveals the organisation is working with NHSX (the unit driving the digital transformation of health and social care), NHS England, NHS Digital and NHS Improvement (which oversee the nation’s 400+ hospital trusts) to make a range of additional mental health support services available for the whole NHS – including those in the Business Services Authority.
“In the meantime, I’ve been reiterating to all our staff that these are difficult times, people need to be gentle, and that it’s ok not to be ok,” Michael adds.
For the second priority, Michael is well aware of the devastating ramifications should any of its services falter while the NHS and associated healthcare organisations work flat out to combat coronavirus.
“If we couldn’t pay our doctors and nurses, make pension payments, or maintain cashflow for our dentists and pharmacists, it would be catastrophic,” he says.
The CEO maintains that well-rehearsed business continuity and escalation plans have been identified and actioned, and are performing exceptionally well.
“We have prioritised resources to maintain key services and staff levels, which are operating the same as before the outbreak,” Michael explains.
“I’ve also spoken to all of our key suppliers – including international corporates and smaller companies – and they have provided assurances that, as a blue light service and part of the NHS, they will give us priority.
With ‘business as usual’ holding up well, Michael and the NHSBSA team have begun using its specialised skills and capabilities to support national healthcare systems as they combat coronavirus.
Much of this effort harnesses the technical expertise the authority has built up through the digitalisation of many of its services.
For example, NHSBSA worked with NHSX and NHS Digital at the very start of the lockdown to identify and contact a million people a day via text message who required extra shielding measures. NHSBSA tech engineers were also involved in setting up the first Nightingale Hospital in London.
The authority’s systems relating to NHS workers are also being utilised for direct communications, key worker testing, and status checking while NHSBSA has also fast-tracked a new service on the NHS Jobs website to make the movement of staff between different hospital trusts much easier.
Meanwhile, tech experts within the authority have been asked to develop and stand up digital services relating to the identification of supply shortages for PPE and drugs (known as the National Supply Disruption Response), as well as services for the nation’s diagnostic industry and potential NHS volunteers network, which could be called upon at any time.
NHSBSA call centre staff have also supported Public Health England to run its dedicated coronavirus helpline which, at its peak, was receiving 5000 calls a day. And an extra £300 million of advance payments have been made available to community pharmacists to help them cope with the increased demand, with digital services also being used to identify and push out more electronic repeat prescriptions to reduce footfall to primary care services.
It is an impressive rota of activity, delivered in a remarkably short amount of time, and Michael is hopeful the digital transformation of the authority will continue to make a considerable impact in the weeks, months and years ahead.
“I’ve spent years in the health and care system listening to people talk evangelically about the importance of digital, but since I’ve been back at the NHSBSA, I’ve seen some brilliant delivery and not just words.”
He continues: “If there’s something positive to come out of the coronavirus, it’s that the traditional boundaries between NHS organisations have disappeared and people have coalesced around a project or service with a shared sense of purpose.”
While NHSBSA’s CEO concedes that the pendulum will swing back a bit, “we can’t all work at the pace everyone has been these last few weeks,” he says, the trick will be stopping it swinging back too far.
“It will be up to us as leaders in the healthcare system to ensure that this kind of cross-organisational working continues,” the CEO says.
Michael and his team are on the verge of publishing its new three-year strategy, which sets out the authority’s objective to be a ‘catalyst for better health’.
Further digitalisation of its services will be critical to this, as will harnessing the growing data and insight potential.
“We generate vast amounts of data, which present a lot of opportunities [in healthcare development],” says Michael. “But our first duty is of course to protect patients’ information and make sure data is available only in large enough datasets so that individuals’ information can’t be accessed or imputed.”
Raising the NHSBSA’s profile is another critical driver for Michael – who describes it as strange seeing his former Public Health England colleagues on the television each day as part of the Downing Street Briefings.
The CEO wants to continue to showcase the work of NHSBSA and build on recent site visits from the health secretary Matt Hancock, NHSX CEO Michael Gould and the chief executive of Public Health England Duncan Selbie – once travel restrictions have been lifted.
“When I was being interviewed for the chief executive role, I remember the chair, Silla Maizey, saying it would be great if the NHSBSA could be at health and care’s ‘top table’, Michael recalls. “I believe, coronavirus has landed us at that top table and my job now is to make sure we stay there – not for a vanity reason but because the things we do are critical to how the NHS operates for the benefits of patients and the taxpayer.”
Its CEO undoubtedly appreciates the herculean effort by the NHSBSA to fulfil its three priorities amid extreme adversity.
“We have the most fantastic staff who are absolutely dedicated to supporting their friends and colleagues on the front line. They see what the doctors and nurses are doing every day and they want to be part of the fightback.”
Michael ends the interview with a touch of humility: “I hope I haven’t come across as boastful and of course with recognition for the extent of the tragedy unfolding; it’s just that I’m so proud of the team and what they have achieved.”
With what he has detailed, such pride in his team is richly deserved. We can only hope that NHSBSA’s efforts are recognised – alongside those of other NHS colleagues – as the dust settles on the greatest healthcare crisis in generations.