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'The answer lies between us’: work together to tackle healthcare inequalities

The Royal Society of Medicine’s second annual Tackling Inequalities conference in partnership with NHS England closed with a clarion call from Professor Bola Owolabi imploring healthcare professionals to commit to collaborate to provide equitable healthcare access for all. 

Summing up an inspiring and motivating day attended by over 150 participants from across the healthcare spectrum, Professor Owolabi, Director of the National Healthcare Inequalities Team, NHS England’s final words “the answer lies between us” emphasised the need for individuals to work together across teams and specialties in order for efforts to improve outcomes to have impact. 

Professor Owolabi details the Core20PLUS5 approach

Following on from the successful inaugural conference, held one year previously in January 2023, ‘Tackling Inequalities: Through innovation and entrepreneurship’ was the second event to take place as part of a five-year programme between the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) and NHS England aimed at addressing the issue of health inequalities.  

As a multi-speciality organisation of around 19,000 members from across the full breadth of the medical sector, the RSM is uniquely placed within the sector to bring together healthcare professionals to forge solutions to narrow the avoidable gap in healthcare outcomes that persist in our society. The RSM’s Dean of Education, Professor Gillian Leng CBE, also played a key part in the day, chairing a Q&A with two of the keynote speakers. 

As well as the opening talk from Prof Owolabi, the day-long, in-person conference featured keynote speeches from Kaakpema “KP” Yelpaala, Senior Fellow and Lecturer, Yale School of Public Health, and Professor Kevin Fong OBE, Consultant Anaesthetist, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Professor, Public Engagement and Innovation, Department of Science, Technology, Education and Public Policy (STEaPP), University College London (UCL). 

Professor Nik Patel opens the conference

Following an introduction from Chair of the RSM academic board, Professor Nik Patel, Prof Owolabi’s keynote set the context and tone for the day, discussing the role of innovation within NHS England’s Core20PLUS5 approach, and how healthcare innovations themselves are not enough without ensuring equity of access and equity of uptake alongside them. She also emphasised the importance of trust for establishing that equitable access and uptake, with factors including representation and working with community leaders key for reaching those who will benefit most. 

“If we don’t have intentionality we will deepen the divide” - Kaakpema “KP” Yelpaala

The second speaker of the day Kaakpema “KP” Yelpaala focused on intention as an essential component of equitable innovation in healthcare, described as ‘a process through which solutions, products and services with transformational potential are intentionally designed and scaled to advance human welfare and reduce health inequities.’ Political determinants of health, collaboration between innovators and policy makers, participation of underrepresented innovators/entrepreneurs, participation of marginalised community members and vulnerable populations, and strategic investment and funding were all cited as enablers of equitable innovation. His talk also touched on the opportunities but also challenges posed by the growth of AI and how it can bake in and scale bias. 

Following on from the opening keynote speeches, participants heard success stories from Core20PLUS5 site representatives in Cornwall and Nottinghamshire; took part in an expert panel discussion on utilising innovation to mitigate digital exclusion with representatives from organisations including NICE, UCL Partners and Health Innovation Network; and digital inclusion specialists from Citizens Online shared a case study of how they aided Rural Action Derbyshire to close the digital divide. 

Professor Tony Young introduces Ghalib Khan, Gemma Poole, Talent Nyandoro, Dr Rachael Grimaldi, Dr Tamsin Holland Brown and Malone Mukwende

Later in the day, Professor Tony Young, National Clinical Director and Lead for Innovation, NHS England led an exciting session introducing five successful participants on the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme he founded – stating how innovation must meet four conditions: it must be novel, it must have value, it must be scalable, and it must empower. Each entrepreneur was given the floor to deliver a two-minute ‘elevator pitch’, taking the audience through their innovation and showcasing how it is helping reduce health inequalities.

"It's all geology" - Professor Kevin Fong

The third keynote speaker, Professor Kevin Fong, brought participants back to the auditorium after a series of expert focus breakout sessions for a dynamic final session. Professor Fong’s fascinating and at times very funny talk about his life and work motivated with some powerful perspectives on leadership and change. Drawing from his love and knowledge of space exploration, he used the 40-year gap between the selection of the first African American astronaut, and the first African American NASA Administrator, to illustrate that change “takes time and it takes pressure, it’s all geology in the end – but you’ve got to keep going.” 

Proceedings were closed with a presentation for the winning and shortlisted entries of the Tackling Inequalities poster competition, with finishing remarks from both Professor Bola Owolabi and Professor Nik Patel. 

Find out more about our Tackling Inequalities programme

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