Helen Bevan

Helen Bevan: Happy to be operating in that space between research and practice

After three decades driving service advances in the NHS, Helen Bevan is joining Warwick Business School this week as Professor of Practice for Health and Social Care Service Improvement.  

The founder of the ground-breaking NHS Horizons collective has set her sights on a complementary approach to tackling the challenges facing the health service. 

She aims to bring about positive change by provoking a creative collision between “the world of practice and the world of inquiry”. 

“You know, when you look at my world, the world of the NHS, the world of health and care, we have a phenomenal mission,” she says.  

“But much of the time we are not dwelling on the evidence-based studies that underpin our practice. So, at Warwick Business School I see my role as taking that research and getting it applied, in order to elevate practice.”   

On the other side of the coin, she believes she can bring a valuable practitioner viewpoint to academia. “Because I am so passionate about practice, I think I can bring some new perspectives to the table.” 

Alternative insights 

In fact, this is what Dr Bevan has been doing throughout her career since she studied for an MBA in the late 1980s. “The MBA changed my life. One of my professors was an early pioneer of total quality management so I just got this fantastic TQM education in my mid-twenties,” the healthcare administration expert says.    

“So when I joined the NHS in the early 1990s I came equipped with a whole toolkit of quality improvement methods that most people hadn’t heard of. Therefore, I was able to offer a totally different way of looking at things.” 

This offer of different perspectives has characterised her career in the National Health Service. One of her first jobs in the organisation was as outpatient improvement manager at Leicester Royal Infirmary, but after realising that it was not only the patient experience in the outpatient department that needed to be re-engineered, but the entire hospital, she initiated one of the most ambitious and radical change programmes ever undertaken by a single NHS Trust - one that led to dramatic improvements in patient service.  

Later, as Chief of Service Transformation at the NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement between 2005 and 2013, she pioneered another landmark change called Releasing Time to Care. The first in this series of improvement initiatives, The Productive Ward - which aimed to increase the proportion of time nurses spent in caring directly for patients - was adopted by more than 80 per cent of English hospitals as well as healthcare systems globally, including those in the Netherlands, Australia and the US.  

There was also a call to action to stop medical professionals inappropriately prescribing anti-psychotic drugs to people living with dementia, which contributed to a 51 per cent reduction in this kind of prescription for people with dementia over three years.  

Social movement thinking  

By this time Dr Bevan, who also has a Doctorate in Business Administration, had moved from the quality improvement methodologies of her early NHS career into social movement thinking: the recognition that the introduction of new systems and processes alone are not enough to deliver outcomes at scale for patients. What is also needed is a sense of agency and shared purpose among staff.  

“That is where the magic happens,” Dr Bevan says. “When people get to work on things that they feel really passionate about and connect with similarly minded people to achieve those things.” 

It was an attempt to bring these social movement principles into mainstream NHS thinking that prompted her next move: the setting up of a team of thought leaders, disruptors and activists working in a space ‘at the edge’ of the NHS to bring positive change to the provision of healthcare.  

It was called NHS Horizons, which soon introduced NHS Change Day, inspiring hundreds of thousands of actions to improve services, and the School for Change Agents, a free open access online training course. One particular initiative that Helen is proud of is the Stay and Thrive scheme aimed at overseas staff retention. As part of this scheme, she has been working with 42 teams across England to support communities from overseas connect with, and support, each other.  

Social movement thinking again underpins this initiative. “It’s about supporting people to do their own change, rather than ‘doing change’ to people,” says the change leader, who was awarded an OBE for her services to healthcare in 2001, and was named as one of the 60 most influential people in the history of the NHS in 2009 by the Health Service Journal.   

One foot in, one foot out 

More recently, she has been working with Nicola Burgess, Reader of Operations Management at WBS, to create a social influence strategy around a partnership between the NHS and the Virginia Mason Institute in the US to create a culture of improvement in healthcare organisations.  

The strategy is attempting to spread the word on social media platforms about new and exciting forms of leadership that can transform organisations

“Nobody else is quite doing research dissemination to a practitioner audience in this way,” says Dr Bevan. “This is where I want to be, operating in that space between research and practice.” 

It is a space that she feels comfortable with. “I’ve spent a whole career on the edge of the system with one foot in and one foot out,” she notes. “But as a change agent whose role is to bring in new ideas and make connections between different sectors that’s exactly where you have to be.”  


To study the Executive MBA with Healthcare Specialism click here.