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Peter Mathieson reflects on his tenure as our Director

4 December 2013

It has been my privilege to be the founding Director of Bristol Health Partners and it is with some regret that I will leave the post at the end of March 2014. It seems timely to reflect on the story so far, to make some comments on current status and to speculate about the future: I am grateful to our Communications Manager Zoe Trinder-Widdess for the opportunity to do so.

In 2007 I was working as Research and Development (R&D) Director for North Bristol NHS Trust and I had a series of conversations with Sonia Mills, then Chief Executive of the Trust, in which we agreed that Bristol needed a joined-up R&D strategy: I was blissfully naïve about the past history and the potential difficulties, and Sonia egged me on to think that the time was right to start afresh. I was helped by two events that took place in the summer of 2008.

First, I was appointed as Dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the University of Bristol, a post in which improving the previously fractured working relationships between the two universities in Bristol and the local NHS organisations, and indeed between the health Faculties of the two universities themselves, was so integral to our success that the need to join things up became my day job and very high on my personal and professional list of priorities.

Second was the developed world's financial crash, cunningly timed by whoever controls these things to fall just after I agreed to become Dean. The crash created an environment where it became essential to do things differently, "more for less" and all that jazz. The status quo was not an option, the economic climate required careful strategic thought, analysis of who our real friends were, where our major competition lay and an end to unhelpful parochial behaviours so that we could compete in a new, much more cash-starved world.

Sonia and the other NHS Chief Executives at the time, together with the Vice Chancellors of the two universities, convened a meeting on 1 September 2008, just over five years ago, which formed the starting point for the project that has now become Bristol Health Partners. (Please note that I loathe the abbreviation BHP, because it sounds too close to BNP and because there is also a Birmingham Health Partners, and the price that I pay for that is that I have to write Bristol Health Partners in full every time!)

The group that we formed acquired the name BRIG-H, the Bristol Research and Innovation Group for Health, another name that I never liked: I never had the energy to spend a lot of time worrying about names, always being more concerned with getting on with the work, but I do now recognise the brand value that BRIG-H had, and that Bristol Health Partners now has, so perhaps names do matter!

Jenny Donovan came up with the term Health Integration Teams (HITs) for our workstreams, another catchy brand name that has served us well. The HITs are the most exciting aspect of Bristol Health Partners' current activities, bringing together enthusiastic and capable people that might otherwise have not worked together, or even worse might previously have been in competition with one another, with the shared aims of improving health outcomes, championing patient and public involvement and bridging organisational and / or professional boundaries.

I am very confident that their work will lead to tangible improvements in the health of the population, locally and further afield. Our successes in the battle to secure major new funding have been spectacular in the last couple of years: the regional Health Innovation and Education Cluster (HIEC), the Healing Foundation paediatric burns research unit, two NIHR Biomedical Research Units (BRUs), Bristol's part in the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) for the west of England, the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care (CLAHRC) etc represent more than just alphabet soup.

Bristol is now seen as an example of best practice in university:NHS collaboration and we are envied by other parts of the country, a situation that was inconceivable five years ago. I was struck at a recent strategy workshop by comments that people, including very senior people in our organisations, vote with their feet and come to Bristol Health Partners events because they enjoy them, find them exciting and somehow liberating because they can see real progress, a feeling of shared endeavour and the conspicuous absence of the administrative and procedural "treacle" that we all have to wade through in our day jobs. Bristol Health Partners must never become entrapped by that treacle: it will kill it.

The challenge to my successor, helped by those of you already involved with the work of Bristol Health Partners and hopefully joined by many more, is to build on this foundation and to take Bristol and the surrounding area onwards and upwards. Changes of personnel must not be allowed to interrupt the momentum: it is noteworthy that every NHS organisation in the partnership has changed its Chief Executive at least once since 2008, but despite that fact the joint buy-in of the leadership has not been diminished.

In my opinion, the key questions facing Bristol Health Partners include how far to extend the geographical patch that is covered by our activities, ideally in my view building collaborations with Wales, the Peninsula and (yes, perish the thought!) London; how to protect the education and training of the healthcare workforce that is in my opinion seriously endangered by recent reforms; how to maintain identity and manage expectations in the face of the arrival of the CLAHRC, AHSN and so on; how to improve the comprehensiveness of our workstreams, how to stimulate new ideas and involve new people including those staff and student groups that might previously have felt that such high-level strategy was not for them; and generally how be ambitious and imaginative enough to make the Bristol area the leading location for people who want to work together in health and health-related activities to make things better for us all. I shall be watching with interest from Hong Kong!

Finally, sincere thanks to the very many people that have contributed to the success story so far. It has been fun, exciting, at times frustrating and challenging, but never dull. Good luck for the next phase.

With best regards, Peter.

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