What the NHS can learn about innovation from Uber

The need for smart, creative and affordable solutions is growing fast as the UK healthcare crisis deepens. Uber demonstrates how design-led innovation can drive industries forward.
Sarah Ronald

Sarah Ronald

Passionate about technology and psychology, Sarah founded Nile in 2006 to improve how everyday digital products and services are researched, designed, and communicated. Today a team of 50, Nile specialises in regulated industries and is especially focussed on the Financial sector. She has been a special adviser to both the British and Scottish Government, and served on boards for The Design Council, Service Design Network and The British Interactive Media Association.


Enthusiasm and scorn followed this week’s reports that an NHS Trust has struck a deal for Uber to provide patient transport. Despite the controversy, the NHS might well have a thing or two to learn from its disruptive new partner, at least when it comes to setting precedents for an industry in the digital era.

Uber is best known as a taxi platform, but the company’s true mission is one of logistics. It’s concerned with the transport of people and goods between waypoints, which is why its diverse activities include food delivery, courier services and even distributing flu vaccinations. The notion of designing a pragmatic system that accomplishes efficient, seamless and cost-effective movement is a strong model of innovation for health and social care too.

Adopting the assertive attitude of a startup like Uber can strengthen the NHS to overcome challenges. In practice, that means changing the mindset and culture of the organisation, getting teams closer to customers, and ensuring a governance model that supports both experimentation and failure. This development doesn’t have to be sudden — starting small to show what’s possible before scaling up can be an excellent strategy

At Nile, we’re passionate about exploring fresh approaches to complex problems, especially in healthcare. Back in January, we brought together professionals from the NHS and the voluntary sector to participate in a design hack focused on mental health. Through collaboration with data analysts, researchers and designers from our partner network and in-house team, together we began to map out digital solutions with the power to improve the healthcare services of tomorrow.

Data was a really important part of the day’s conversations. Gary Douglas, head of consultancy at analytics firm Lynchpin — one of our health hack partners — thinks data will be the driving force as the healthcare sector tackles modernisation. As he puts it:

“You can unlock strong value in NHS data by layering it with other rich sources — location or socio-economic factors, for example. It’s about identifying the points of interaction and recognising that those are opportunities to both collect data and use it to improve the experience for end users.”
Gary Douglas

In the next era of healthcare, patients’ expectations will be higher than ever. App-based consumer services like Uber, Deliveroo and Airbnb have set a precedent for high-quality user experience across all areas of life. Healthcare is no different, as Birgit Mager, president of the Global Service Design Network, explains:

“There’s a big challenge ahead in terms of adapting to those new benchmarks. The public sector has to raise the bar in what service provision means if it wants to create innovative offerings through partnership with the private sector.”
Birgit Mager

As service designers, we know first-hand that collaborative projects can make all the difference to people’s lives, and add enormous value for the organisations that serve them. A few years ago, we worked with the NHS to create a digital health and symptom checker service that was the first clinically-approved tool of its kind anywhere in the world.

In a 12-month period after launch, a million people were referred for emergency medical care thanks to the symptom checker, while 6.5 million people were able to quickly identify their treatment needs without a GP appointment. The tool saved the health service money, helped allocate resources to areas with the most need, and relieved significant pressure on phone lines.

Input from internal NHS teams, developers and customers were all vital in achieving these remarkable outcomes. Designing within highly-regulated life and death moments is not easy, but through strategic design insights and a customer-centred approach, we made the service easier to access and more intuitive to use.

The challenge of delivering patient services in more convenient and user-friendly ways is well-recognised by the health service. And as Isabel Hunt, director of improvement at NHS Digital, points out:

“A lot of the most innovative thinking in health is driven by the private sector. The NHS can add value when scale is needed, or when national interfaces or established standards are required to make an idea work effectively.”
Isabel Hunt

Upcoming plans to incorporate data from consumer health apps and devices into NHS systems will open up new opportunities for commercial solutions to meet public sector need. Combining those opportunities with the speediness of the service design approach — which can move projects from user research to functional prototype in a matter of weeks — means the potential for innovation is huge.

Often though, it’s the mindset of an organisation that ultimately determines success or failure. Bringing together the right people — such as service providers, frontline staff and patients — to develop and discuss solutions can move things forward more swiftly and productively than working in isolation. Uber could certainly benefit from this advice given its own mistakes in terms of establishing a positive work culture, particularly on the ground. After all, success has as much to do with people as it does tech. At Nile, we can help with both. When everyone’s needs are properly understood, and customer focus is put at the heart of design, simple solutions can lead to incredible outcomes.

Today, the need for the NHS to thrive and modernise is clear, and that means there’s never been a better time to think big, innovate and create in healthcare. Pioneers must accomplish the same winning proposition as Uber: effectiveness, seamlessness and cost-efficiency. For achieving that ambitious formula, service design makes a perfect partner.