Our departing COO Lisa King has been Bristol Health Partners’ longest-serving team member, with nearly nine years at the partnership. She reflects on some of the highlights.
I had taken a year out to travel with my now husband when, in an internet café (remember those?) in Vietnam, an interesting opportunity caught my eye. The ad was for a programme manager at the University of Bristol, which involved setting up and driving forward new strategic initiatives at the University. I’m a planner by nature, so had been job-hunting to coincide with returning home. This seemed like an interesting role that would draw on various aspects of my previous experience and I felt like the opportunity was too good to pass up.
I arrived for my interview only two days after we’d landed back in the UK. Stepping out of our huge, vintage campervan that we were living in until we found employment and accommodation, in a suit I’d bought for the occasion (all my work clothes were still in storage), I felt somewhat incongruous to my surroundings. But I was very excited to be offered the role, and more so when I was told my first assignments would include continuing to set up and develop Bristol Health Partners and supporting the Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research.
My degree is in Genetics so I have a natural interest in health and life sciences. My previous roles, however, had involved supporting and delivering research and development, innovation, knowledge transfer and policy across all sectors, within regional development agencies, national government and Higher Education institutions. When I started, I knew very little about the NHS and how the health and social care system operated so to say it was a steep learning curve is an understatement! However, I soon realised I found this large, complex and challenging system fascinating.
When I joined, the first collaboration agreement had just been signed and the partnership was led by Professor Peter Mathieson, then Dean of the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, and now Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. Our very first office was cupboard-like, with two desks squeezed into it, in the Clinical Research Imaging Centre (CRIC) on St Michael’s Hill. Zoe Trinder-Widdess and Trish Harding (who’s still with Bristol Health Partners as its Evaluation Support Lead) were my first recruits and, as we took on new staff, I had to identify more generous accommodation. We were in Whitefriars temporarily, then moved to 100 Temple St hosted by Bristol City Council, before moving back to Whitefriars. After a few nomadic years I'm very happy that Bristol Health Partners has now found what feels like a permanent home. We are very much integrated with the fantastic NIHR ARC West team and we are grateful for how welcome we feel there.
The Health Integration Team (HIT) model was designed not long before I started, by Jenny Donovan, David Wynick and my predecessor Jenny Knapp. It was unique at the time and still feels ground-breaking compared to other Academic Health Science Centres, in being the most broad and inclusive model, involving members of the public, commissioners of health and social care and voluntary sector organisations. One of my first tasks was to oversee the assessment process for teams wanting to become HITs. As the model was new, we had a high number of applications in the early days – although only 21 have ever reached full HIT status. Kidney Disease was the first I was involved in approving, and I’m pleased to say it’s still active today.
Bristol Health Partners is funded entirely by its members rather than any arms-length, statutory body, which means it can be truly flexible, adaptable and responsive to local needs and opportunities as they arise. There is no rule book or blueprint for what we do or how we do it, which was challenging but, also created exciting opportunities and the freedom to evolve as we needed to.
Looking back, I'm proud of how the partnership has grown in every sense: in size and reach and reputation. We’re now becoming fully integrated as an essential R&D resource within the health and care system, which can only bring benefits to our local population. I hope our efforts have played a part in catalysing a culture shift - the potential for research to support health outcomes is increasingly recognised. Our recent focus on equality, diversity and inclusion is something that I'm proud of too. It has taught me a lot personally, and I’m not sure I would have had the same level of exposure to these important issues if I hadn’t been here.
I’m moving on to become Senior Programme Manager for Health Technology Wales, whose work has similarities with England's Applied Research Collaborations and Academic Health Science Network but on a pan-Wales basis, funded by Welsh Government rather than the NIHR. I moved to Wales during the pandemic, which is where I went to university and lived for 15 years afterwards, so I feel like I’m going back to a place which is dear to my heart, but there are so many people I’m going to miss here in Bristol.
It has been an absolute honour to work with HITs, the Bristol Health Partners Board, Research & Innovation Steering Group and many, many others across the system because these are people who genuinely want to make a difference. The Bristol Health Partners core team, whom I’ve had the privilege to lead, is incredibly capable, passionate and committed and I have learnt so much from our system leaders like David Wynick (Director), Andrea Young (previous Chair) and Robert Woolley (current Chair).
The last eight and a half years have cemented my belief that relationships and collaboration are the key to pretty much all success in life and if you keep plugging away, even when things are difficult, you can and will make a difference!
Olly Watson became Bristol Health Partners AHSC's interim COO in November 2021 after 18 months job-sharing the role with Lisa.