The value of nursing digital leadership
Sarah Hanbridge, chief clinical information officer, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust and chair, CNIO Network
It’s about two and a half years since I become a chief clinical information officer, meaning I very formally became the leader of digital nursing in a trust. But when I think about it, I’ve always been a champion of nurses leading digital change – I just didn’t realise it.
I have always sought opportunities to improve the quality of care and, right at the start of my career, I saw that digitisation could be an important way of doing this. In the late 1990s, as a junior staff nurse, I was lucky enough to work in an organisation that was very forward thinking and which implemented an electronic patient record. I immediately saw how the quality of our nursing documentation improved after the transition from handwritten notes. I became convinced of the value of digital to nursing.
I also saw how important it was to empower nurses, midwives and allied health professionals to own digital change. I saw that only by providing colleagues with the required training and skills will digital solutions be fully incorporated into nursing practice.
The importance of digital tools
Fast forward to 2020, and I could never have predicted how important digital tools would have become to the provision of effective nursing care. During the pandemic, as it has become harder to deliver care face-to-face, remote monitoring has become even more important.
The pandemic has truly tested the nursing profession. But it has also helped us understand more than ever how digital can help us to do our jobs well and look after our patients to the best of our abilities.
Pre-Covid we had all lived and breathed the challenges of digitalisation. Then in a world of uncertainty during extremely difficult times, even previously sceptical nurses, midwives, allied health professionals and other clinicians turned towards digital solutions to ensure patients continued to receive health and social care.
Strong nursing leadership helped make this possible. I think it’s fair to say that nurses are renowned problem solvers who bring solutions to the table. That’s part of why I wanted to become a chief clinical information officer. I wanted to help bring the innovative thinking of nurses to the forefront and make sure it was central to new ways of working.
I see that as a big part of why nursing digital leadership is so valuable. It brings attention to the voices of frontline nurses, who are key to successfully introducing and implementing new healthcare models. That includes new digital models.
Listening and sharing
In my experience, transformation only happens by listening to people to understand what does and does not work. CNIOs do that listening work, and then make sure those views are taken into account when digital solutions are designed and implemented. We work collaboratively with other clinicians and with IT teams and developers to make sure solutions are safe, efficient and help support improvements in the quality of patient care.
Typically, the CNIO role doesn’t come with the autonomy to make decisions single-handedly. Instead it’s about influencing, about making relationships, about telling a convincing and persuasive story about what is required by frontline nurses.
Then, when a new solution is introduced, we make sure our colleagues have the training and support they need to use it to its full capacity.
I really believe that all the digital projects I’ve been involved in show the importance of that kind of leadership and input. One that springs to mind is a project I worked on at Salford Royal NHS Foundation Trust. I was a senior nurse programme manager for the Digital Control Centre – a programme using digital means to help more efficiently manage patients, staff and equipment.
Much of the Digital Control Centre work was about redesigning operational processes. But the only way that could work was if there was clinical engagement, and that’s where I came in. I could liaise with staff to understand exactly what would work best.
We did a lot of pilots as part of the overall programme. I remember working with staff on some inpatient medical wards to explore the introduction of a task management process. The idea was to help advance understanding of capacity and demand, and support clinical safety.
Through those conversations with clinical staff we realised what the gaps were, what the bottlenecks were. And we gained a vision of what future iterations of the solution might look like. That’s the invaluable contribution that can be made by CNIOs and other clinical IT leaders.
“Don’t tell me about the software system”
During that programme, I started using a phrase I now utter all the time. “Don’t tell me about the software system,” I’d say. “Tell me about the people and the processes.” That’s what I’m interested in, and where I think I and other CNIOs can add value.
It’s why I feel that it’s important to keep building the numbers of CNIOs. But in the NHS the role of chief clinical information officer is still a relatively new one – let alone that of a chief nursing information officer. That means the idea of becoming a digital nurse leader can be daunting. You might know you want to ultimately become a CNIO but have no idea how to get there. Or you might have been appointed a CNIO and be seeking some support.
That’s the whole purpose of the CNIO Network. It provides a buddying approach to mentorship and coaching for existing CNIOs while supporting the professional development of aspiring CNIOs. One of its major aims is to promote best practice, learning and collaboration.
That’s also the purpose of this Handbook. It brings together personal stories and learning from nursing digital leaders, sharing experience and expertise which will be useful to others interested in the field. You’ll find it helpful whether you’re new to a chief nursing information officer or allied health professional IT role, or whether you’re considering progressing into such a role.
We also aim to further increase the profile and recognition of the CNIO role. Because as digital becomes more and more important to healthcare, so does strong nursing leadership in this area.
About the author: Sarah Hanbridge is chief clinical information officer of The Christie NHS Foundation Trust and chair of the CNIO Network, a role to which she was elected in July 2021. She has been a nurse for 26 years, involved in digital nursing nursing for much of that time, and took up her first formal digital nursing post in 2017.
Chapter two of the CNIO Handbook will be published in April 2022.