‘Diabetes champions’: change powered by partnership

Diabetes champions is the winner of the 2018 Health Collaboration Award

Nobody is better placed than healthcare professionals to identify challenges in local health service delivery. Not only can those on the front line diagnose problems, they can also prescribe changes that improve patient outcomes and make health systems more efficient.
Diabetes is a case in point. The rapid rise in diabetes in Europe represents a significant burden on patients and poses a threat to the sustainability of health systems. In the UK alone, diabetes absorbs around 10% of the National Health Service budget. Much of this is spent on treating preventable complications of diabetes.
Healthcare professionals see the value in managing diabetes patients well, helping to reduce the number of emergency admissions for hypoglycaemia – which are typically tougher on patients and costly for health systems.
However, navigating the healthcare decision-making system is a major challenge, requiring leadership, persuasion and strategic skills. For healthcare professionals with innovative ideas for improving services, trying to reinvent struggling services can be frustrating and demoralizing.
A unique partnership
In 2014, a unique partnership was born, bringing together industry, a patient group and a leading business school. Together, Novo Nordisk, Diabetes UK and Ashridge Business School devised the Clinical Champions programme – a leadership training course designed to equip frontline diabetes healthcare professionals with the knowledge and expertise they need to drive change.
‘We know HCPs have enormous knowledge of diabetes,’ says Mhukti Perumal Clinical Champions Programme Manager at Diabetes UK. ‘However, they don’t always have the leadership skills to drive system-wide change.’
Experienced, passionate and motivated diabetes professionals were selected to take part in a two-year programme. During this time, they were given expert leadership coaching, helping them to complete a project that improved service delivery and patient care. To date, 85 specialist nurses, consultants, GPs, pharmacists, podiatrists, dieticians and psychologists from across the UK have graduated from the programme.
‘We worked with the first group of champions to co-create a programme around their needs,’ says Dr Guy Lubitsh, Client Director, Ashridge Executive Education. ‘This forced us all to think creatively to come up with a leadership programme around which participants felt real ownership.’
Making the project work meant overcoming some old suspicions of industry support for public health initiatives. For Diabetes UK and Novo Nordisk, the industry Code of Practice serves as a guide and provides a sense of security for all players. Partners – and ‘graduates’ of the programme – have also helped to highlight the importance of the initiative in their own organisations and among the wider diabetes community.
‘We are now in our fifth year working together and the partnership has gone from strength to strength,’ says Catherine Brant, External Relations Manager, Novo Nordisk. ‘The programme is very well regarded by clinicians, patients and by the NHS. The results speak for themselves.’
Alumni network
As the Clinical Champions project begins recruiting its new intake, its alumni network is reaching critical mass. ‘Becoming a leader takes time,’ says Catherine. ‘If we look at what the first cohort of champions are doing now, they are really beginning to make a lasting difference – and both their colleagues and the people living with diabetes are benefitting from the skills they developed at Ashridge.’
They can serve as mentors to new recruits, discuss cases studies drawn from their own experience, and offer face-to-face support for healthcare professionals in their region. And, as the ‘champions’ apply their know-how to clinical practice, their confidence and ability grows further.
‘Our experience with Clinical Champions is that they are a pleasure to work with – they are open, warm and keen to come back and share their stories,’ says Guy. ‘We are looking to support them on a peer-to-peer level through a virtual platform, as well as through social media.’
The model of collaboration has inspired spin-off initiatives to support specific leadership programmes for diabetes nurses, pharmacists and dieticians. It has also been embraced by other patient groups – including a UK-based Versus Arthritis Charity – which has enrolled its first cohort of clinical champions at Ashridge.
All three partners in the partnership view it as a long-term fixture as health services adapt to the growing demands of rising diabetes cases. ‘It’s a fantastic programme to be involved in,’ says Mhukti. ‘There is a real feelgood factor about having a real impact on care for people with diabetes. That is the goal we all share.’

Sustainable results

More than merely fighting their corner to protect existing services from cutbacks, Diabetes UK Clinical Champions are well placed to find win-win solutions. The programme has helped to deliver concrete, lasting changes that benefit patients:
  • the creation of an online diabetes education course for 18,000 people living with diabetes in Scotland
  • an innovative change to the diabetes patient pathway in Northern Ireland
  • training programmes for health professionals in primary care
  • 3% reduction in insulin errors
  • a city-wide formulary for diabetes medication in Birmingham
  • a schools-based education initiative in Wales
  • reduced time from admission to diagnosis of diabetes ketoacidosis (DKA)
  • reduced length of stay by an average of 3.2 days for certain patient types