How the NHS is maximising healthcare students’ leadership skills

Adam Turner outlines a new learning model that is helping healthcare students gain leadership skills from the very start of their careers

What if every healthcare student graduated and entered the sector thinking as leaders of improvement? What direct impact would this have on our healthcare services? How would service users experience healthcare in 10 years’ time as a result? These are the questions we asked when we began our journey of research and development into the newly-launched guidelines that enable all universities to flexibly integrate their approaches to leadership development in the pre-registration healthcare curricula.

Since our work began on this project in 2015, leadership and improvement are increasingly recognised as core skills for all clinical professionals. The Developing people improving care framework emphasises our responsibility to enable students and our newly-qualified workforce to increasingly embrace leadership as an integrated part of their professional roles. Beyond the academic and policy motivators for this work, at the heart of the project was our underlying belief that it’s the right thing to do. We were clear from the start that the guidelines should be developed by healthcare, for healthcare and the past several years of work has been underpinned by a partnership of co-design with education providers, healthcare organisation development and education leads, system leaders and professional bodies. 

There are two core flexible models proposed within guidelines: the ‘three stages’ of developing as a healthcare leader in pre-registration education and the ‘three phases’ of integrating the guidelines into the curricula through ongoing enhancement and re-validation processes.

The three stages of developing as a leader follow an ‘inside-out’ model that flexibly maps to a generic three-year undergraduate programme:

  • Stage 1: Focus on self
  • Stage 2: Working with others
  • Stage 3: Improving healthcare

The first stage represents how it is vital for students to truly understand themselves, who they are, their personality, values and beliefs before they can truly and inclusively connect to the diversity of other healthcare practitioners and service users. This aspect of the model is perhaps the most impactful. In leadership development we often find that our healthcare professionals only truly begin to understand themselves later in their careers, after they have entered a leadership position. The following stage represents connecting to – and working with – others as part of a team. The final stage represents how all our healthcare professionals should be empowered to lead improvement for healthcare services, safeguarding the ongoing quality improvement to our services and service user experience.  

Our ambition is for all education providers to flexibly integrate this evidence-based way of developing students as leaders, so that leadership increasingly becomes something that every healthcare professional does, rather than something that is bolted on later in their careers, when it is often too late. 

We understood that one size does not fit all in the diversity of our healthcare education practice, and the three phases of implementation have been designed to be flexible and supportive to education provider partners when integrating leadership development in their diverse curricula:

  • Phase 1: Principles of programme design
  • Phase 2: Key programme content
  • Phase 3: Key approaches to teaching and learning

Our intention is to continue to co-design national supportive resources to enable implementation, and to capture and celebrate best-practice learning throughout the process over the next five years.

These guidelines represent a first for healthcare education. Never before have we co-designed a national evidence-based approach to developing our student leaders, beginning at the vital talent entry points of our healthcare services. To join us in this exciting work, find out more here on the Health Education England website.

Adam Turner is leadership programme lead at Health Education England