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Bristol Health Partners: the early years

13 June 2018

Professor Peter Mathieson, who is now Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, was the first Director of Bristol Health Partners. Here he talks about the early days of the partnership. This blog is part of the Bristol Firsts series, celebrating Bristol-based innovations in the NHS’s 70th year. If you have an idea for a Bristol Firsts blog, get in touch with Zoe Trinder-Widdess on zoe.trinder-widdess@bristol.ac.uk.

The notion that there should be greater strategic alignment between universities and healthcare providers cannot in itself be labelled a “Bristol First”; indeed it cannot be labelled a “UK-first” since systems in the United States had been going this way for some years before it became fashionable in the UK with the declaration of the Imperial Academic Health Science Centre in 2007. However, in 2008 when I became Dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Bristol, it was painfully obvious that Bristol needed attention in this sphere.

Relations between the two universities and the multiple healthcare providers in the city and region, and indeed between organisations in each category, were far from optimal. On the grounds of “never waste a good crisis”, the global financial meltdown of 2008 (which certainly moved the goalposts for my Deanship) provided a helpful stimulus to doing things differently. Leaders of the universities and of the healthcare providers rapidly signed up to the principle that we should work more closely together and the forerunner group of Bristol Health Partners, catchily (!) named the Bristol Research & Innovation Group- Health, BRIG-H, was born. Maybe not a Bristol-First, but certainly a first for Bristol.

I remember early warnings that we must be more than a “coalition of the willing”, with which I heartily agreed, but at least this was better than a ragbag of the unwilling. We harnessed strengths in epidemiology, mental health, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative disease amongst others and we built collaborative strategic plans, joint funding applications, publicity campaigns, links with patient and carer organisations, charities and industries.

Many people contributed massively to the project in those early days but I always felt that Deborah Evans, then CEO of NHS Bristol, was my major kindred spirit and chief ally. That is not to say that we always agreed: we didn’t, and perhaps that’s one reason why it worked so well for both of us.

Bristol Health Partners was formally launched in 2012, with Bristol City Council also a partner.

It could have been possible for us to be distracted by various events. There had for years been talk of NHS trust mergers, including the ambitious possibility of creating a huge acute trust by an amalgamation of Southmead, Frenchay and University Hospitals Bristol. There were rumours of private providers being interested in mental health services and other NHS services. The perpetual reform of primary care structures (primary care trusts, clusters, clinical commissioning groups and so on)… All or any of these could have been barriers to progress by causing planning blight. I am pleased to say that none of these potential distractions got in the way of the central mission of improving healthcare for the people of Bristol and the surrounding regions.

I left Bristol in 2014 for a new role in Hong Kong: I have watched the progress of Bristol Health Partners with great interest ever since, delighted to see workers in Bristol winning national and international acclaim for joined-up approaches to healthcare research, strategic development, implementation and clinical delivery. Such an environment of shared planning and decision-making would have been inconceivable prior to 2008. I am proud that I played a part.

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