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Nesta is an innovation foundation. For us, innovation means turning bold ideas into reality and changing lives for the better. We use our expertise, skills and funding in areas where there are big challenges facing society.

People Powered Health: tips for new graduates

I am delighted to have received an Honorary Doctorate in Health Sciences from Anglia Ruskin University. Here is the address I gave yesterday at the Corn Exchange in Cambridge to graduates in the fields of social work, nursing, midwifery, acute care, community care, early years and education.

"Vice-chancellor, graduates, ladies and gentleman,

I’m delighted to receive this honorary doctorate in Health Sciences.

And I accept it on behalf of everyone who has worked to develop what we’ve called People Powered Health at Nesta and beyond.

Nesta is an innovation charity dedicated to supporting ideas that can help improve all our lives. And over the past six years, we have tested and grown new approaches to health and care which put people at the centre.

I’m particularly pleased to be receiving this honour from Anglia Ruskin University - which is known for its excellent training in Health, Care & Education.

And, most importantly, congratulations to all of you for receiving your degrees. Today is about recognising the dedication and hard work it has taken you all to get here.

Reflecting on my work in health and care, here a few thoughts as you start the next stage of your professional life:

Firstly, you are all highly valuable. Whether you’ve trained as a midwife, social worker, nurse, or in early years or education - you are all absolutely essential to the future of a healthy and strong society.

In fact, the health and care system needs you more than ever. As you know, the system is under a great deal of pressure - from rising demand and financial stress. And because of this, what you have to offer is even more important - your professional skills, your compassion and your dedication to improving the lives of other people.

And people like you, are at the heart of People Powered Health. So, what is People Powered Health? What does it look like? Here are a couple of examples of putting people at the centre of health and care in practice.  

One is about the difference it makes when people are listened to. And the second is about staff problem-solving at the frontline.  

The first example is a man I met in Huddersfield a couple of years ago called Paul. In his sixties. An ex-miner. He told me the shock of being diagnosed with a lung condition. He thought he just had a bad cough.

The doctor told him to start exercising. But Paul, understandably, was scared of becoming out of breath. So, he left the surgery feeling overwhelmed and depressed. He withdrew into himself and began to do less and less. And this, of course, made his lung condition worse. So, after a while, he wasn’t able to move more than a few metres at a time.

People Powered Health is about moving away from failures like this, towards a system that knows how to support people like Paul much better. Firstly, it’s about great conversations with professionals like you. Conversations that are open, and in which people are really listened to.

In the end, Paul was connected to a specialist pulmonary nurse who talked to him and found out he used to be a champion swimmer in his younger days. With her support, step by step, he increased his confidence and by the time I met him he was swimming several lengths of the pool every week. In his own words, it was a ‘miracle’.

The other thing that really helped Paul was joining a local peer support group with other people with lung disease. This group helped Paul feel less alone and gave him new skills. He’s now helping new members of the group when they first arrive.  

So these two things - a professional really listening, and connections with peers who understand what it’s like - are at the heart of People Powered Health.

But the People in People Powered Health are also empowered professionals.

We do a lot of work with professionals to motivate them to work better together and to focus on a shared mission. Something that can get lost in the busyness of frontline work in an overstretched system.

In one hospital ward in Harlow, close to where many of you have been studying, staff were given permission to help improve discharge out of hospital and they spent time talking to patients. It turned out that the older patients preferred to get home as early in the day as possible, so they can settle before night falls.

But the hospital had assumed it was important to give older patients one last hot meal before they went home. This switch - from afternoon discharge to morning discharge was not only better for people, it freed up beds sooner, which is better for the hospital. This came about from staff solving problems at the frontline.

So, given that, here are a couple of thoughts for you as you embark on your next chapter:

  • Be a great listener - listening is an incredibly powerful tool and really can make all the difference.

  • Be a problem solver - when you see something that needs to be fixed, work with others to fix it. Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest.​

The combination of these - listening and problem-solving - will, I think, set you up in good stead. Not just for a successful career but for achieving what’s most important of all - making a real difference to people’s lives.

So, thank you once again for recognising the work that I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with.

And I hope that all of you become living exemplars of People Powered Health in action.

Good luck and thank you".



Halima Khan

Halima Khan

Halima Khan

Executive Director, Health, People and Impact

Halima was the Executive Director of the Health, People and Impact. She led Nesta’s work in health and also oversaw people (human resources) and impact for the organisation.

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