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The Health Foundation is working in partnership with NHS England and NHS Improvement to explore and enhance the role of the NHS as an anchor institution. This week sees the launch of our joint initiative, the UK-wide Health Anchors Learning Network.  

The network will support people interested in anchor approaches to share ideas, knowledge and skills, helping them to implement anchor strategies in practice.  

Michael Wood is Head of Health Economic Partnerships at NHS Confederation and is currently seconded to NHS London part-time to set up a local anchors network. We spoke to him about the Health Anchors Learning Network, and the potential for anchors to play a more conscious role in local social and economic development. 

What are anchor institutions and why are they important in your work? 

An anchor institution is often defined as a large organisation that is fixed in a geographical location and has a social purpose. These are organisations that will be there through thick and thin, and therefore have both influence over, and a strong interest in, realising the place’s potential. The classic anchors include hospitals, local authorities, universities, colleges and housing associations but it’s pleasing to see this definition widening to focus on the role of systems and community assets in enabling and supporting anchor work (including things like primary care networks and voluntary sector services). 

I work on understanding how decision-making in NHS organisations impacts local partners and can play a part in developing a prosperous place. The flip-side is considering how the local economy affects us in the NHS. If the place you are in becomes poorer, how does that affect your ability to grow your workforce, or the length of the queue at your A&E?  

I started working with NHS London a few months after the advent of COVID-19 and already London’s civic leaders were thinking beyond the immediate clinical response to the lasting economic and social impact. The NHS was centrally involved in those discussions and ‘anchor thinking’ really found a home.  

You were one of a group of stakeholders involved in the codesign of the new learning network – what was involved in that? 

Given the nature of the anchor concept this is not something that can simply be rolled out from the centre. The codesign process has brought together people who have been involved in these discussions locally and got us thinking about how a UK-wide network could help with the key issues and relationships that local leaders need to grasp.  

One of the principles we discussed was that the network should be open. The NHS is one of a range of important anchors and relationships with other partners will help us understand far more about our own value and role. That might be third sector, or leaders from local authorities or education. I’m an adviser for the Civic University Network, which is trying to do a similar thing for universities. There is real learning and strength to be gained through sharing this journey.  

What excites you about the network? 

This is such a public and important part of the NHS truly understanding its role. We are already ‘anchors’, in that our influence matters locally now. The network is an important part of helping leaders see that they are making decisions which have implications – both positive and negative.  

This is a UK-wide initiative and there will be significant learning we can share between all four countries. We will also want to connect this vision and network with local emerging networks.  

The timing of this is important too. With the Department of Health and Social Care’s new white paper setting out proposals for a new health and care bill, we have policy and practice coming together at a time when our economy has never been so pressurised.  

COVID-19 has brought health inequalities into sharp focus. How can anchor institutions support the recovery post-pandemic? 

The things that determine people’s health are often what you can see through your office window, such as housing, employment opportunities and the physical environment. The anchor concept helps leaders to understand and crystallise the actions they themselves can take, often from within their own four walls, to help narrow the inequalities at the heart of poor health. 

A frustration of mine is that traditionally the NHS has not been around the table when local economic decisions have been made. However, we are one of the few sectors still recruiting, and we’ve had a range of businesses changing what they do to service the NHS during the pandemic. Our role as an anchor will be a core part of the economic recovery of every place from COVID-19.  

Long-term, what impact do you hope the network will have?   

I hope the NHS is seen and sees itself as a routine part of place leadership. Local leaders should want the NHS at the table because of our economic and social impact and the NHS should want to be a part of that because of the links to population health.  

I also think the anchor work is a really important part of the development of an integrated care system more generally. If we want local authorities to be full partners in the development of our integrated care systems, then we have to understand the issues which matter to them, and the local economy is central in this.  

I’ve a real hope for national policymaking too. If we are to ever succeed in having a ‘health in all policies’ approach coming out of government, the anchor work will be a key part of making that happen. 

Find out more 

  • Our latest long read further explores insights from local leaders around the UK who are using anchor approaches to respond to the impact of COVID-19. 
  • More about the Health Anchors Learning Network and how to sign up
  • Join us for the network’s launch webinar on 25 March, 15:30-17:00, where we’ll be sharing more about the network’s plans, and hearing from Dr Jennifer Dixon, Chief Executive of the Health Foundation and Dr Bola Owolabi, GP and Director – Health Inequalities, NHS England and NHS Improvement.  

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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