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Innovation, movement and health: driving change and impact

Our national partnership lead closes the blog series on the partnership with OHID and the NHS to apply sport and physical activity in the treatment of health conditions, highlighting the learnings along the way.

25th May 2023

by Suzanne Gardner
National partnership lead health and wellbeing, Sport England

Since 2017, Sport England has been working with the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) to activate NHS systems as part of our wider Moving Healthcare Professionals partnership. 

This ambitious multi-layered programme aims to embed physical activity within health systems to support people – especially those with health conditions – to be more active and for this to become the norm, rather than the exception.

In 2021, specialist transformation experts NHS Horizons joined the partnership to accelerate change across the NHS by introducing innovative practices, helping us work differently and learn more about how to create large-scale change. 

Taking small steps

Our partnership has been working holistically within systems to help create the conditions for change. This is complex as systems are organic – their energy constantly changing.

Our dynamic one-page driver diagram, co-designed with the NHS, helps us to address this complexity and bring our Theory of Change to life.

Our partnership has been working holistically within systems to help create the conditions for change.

It sets out the primary and secondary drivers for change, alongside the small steps to create change, with the figure below setting out some current examples.

The driver diagram enables us to be responsive and adapt our actions based on what we are learning.

So, while we are clear and remain fixed on our vision and desired outcomes, we are also working dynamically, using the insights from each engagement and action to adapt our approach and always asking questions as we keep advancing towards our overarching goals.

It has taken time to get used to this way of working but this agility has helped to ensure we are finding routes to create the change we are seeking within the system.

Driver diagram showcasing examples of large-scale and smaller variations needed to create change in a system.

Reframing failure 

The systems-change work we are doing has given us an even greater appreciation of learning and the role it must play in driving action, change and partnerships forward.

Learning is seen as a shared activity across stakeholders, with collective reflection being important in drawing out deeper, richer lessons.

Understanding what isn’t working is just as important as what is - even when this means hearing difficult messages.

Design and engagement events have given us key moments where a wide range of stakeholders from different sectors including health, sport and physical activity, academic and digital have come together to solve problems and inform action.

At our first NHS England roundtable, the need to better use data and articulate the latest evidence-base against NHS priorities to help integrate physical activity into NHS services was highlighted.

This led to a cross-sector data workshop to explore needs and opportunities further. 

For example, knowing where to signpost or refer patients to is an often cited challenge.

Creating connections between the OpenActive work, led by the Open Data Institute and NHS England, has generated further insight about the role of shared data infrastructure and opportunities for closer collaboration to overcome this.

A collaborative learning culture has enabled us to fail fast and adapt. It has also provided us with some important realisations:

  • The hooks you need to drive engagement are varied and nuanced, due to the differing priorities and resources of stakeholders. Being curious and asking questions will help you to find the right hooks.
  • Differences in terminology and language can mean that messages don’t always land in the way you might expect. 
  • Getting all parties together to understand challenges and agree a way forward early in the process builds engagement and common understanding, which is key to achieve large-scale change.
  • Adopting new approaches has supported greater connectivity and dialogue between national and place-based partners around what is needed to bring the changes we seek into reality.

Increasing trust among stakeholders and the rich insights gained through honest conversations have opened doors to new opportunities and stronger connections between the health and the sport and physical sectors.

The lessons we learnt

Thinking and acting in this way has, at times, felt challenging and confusing, but also liberating, inspiring and, ultimately, a big and powerful shift in our partnership approach.

The outcomes to date see us wanting to amplify and accelerate the progress we have made by continuing our innovation and transformation journey in this area with partners across the health and sport and physical sectors.  

Here’s my advice to others embarking on similar work, based on our learning.

  • Prioritise relationships and connections.
  • Be explorers rather than experts - ask questions, listen and learn from others.
  • To build engagement, create a compelling story about the change you are seeking.
  • Build a multi-disciplinary team to help make sense of what you’re learning.
  • Embrace uncertainty – focusing on the next couple of steps instead of the whole road will help you keep moving forward.

This has been a truly rich and rewarding experience.

Throughout, we have been guided by a strong commitment to supporting people to enjoy the benefits of physical activity, and the potential to build healthier lifestyles by embedding activity in healthcare settings.

There is still more to do, but we are excited by the challenge and will continue to evolve our approach to make it happen.  

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