Breid O’Brien, Deputy Director for Digital Health, NHSX
Seeing digital as an inextricable part of NHS 'DNA', and the need for gender and racial diversity from floor to board
Breid O’Brien is the Deputy Director for Digital Health in NHSX. She first joined the NHS in 1983. An emergency nurse by background, Breid moved to operational management in Australia’s healthcare system. She returned to the UK in 2000, and has since worked across improvement and digital healthcare. Although attitudes in the NHS have changed towards women working in digital, Breid believes more can be done to encourage females onto this career path.
"It’s not just about technology. It’s about relationships, people and process"
Breid leads the regional digital scale programme in NHSX. She says: “We support local systems across England to scale remote monitoring technology, to help monitor patients at home. Technology can support people with long term conditions, monitoring their symptoms and vitals from home. It also enables people who may otherwise be in a hospital bed, to be discharged earlier or avoid being admitted in the first place. But it’s not just about technology. It’s about relationships, people and process.” She describes her favourite work moment recently as being when a patient told her: “This is technology at its best.” It enabled him to be at home with his family, eat the food he liked, and generally recover faster.
Breid’s interest in technology developed abroad. She explains: “In Australia, because of the huge distances, people had to use technology more meaningfully. It wasn’t that they had the best technology in the world, but they were connected.”
"Covid has shown that digital needs to be part of the ‘DNA’ of how we work."
Her experience with digital overseas led her to see its potential at home. “I realised how disconnected everything was,” she says. “And how, even within organisations, people were working with isolated information.” Since moving into technology in 2003, Breid has worked in improvement and digital roles: “For me, these two disciplines are inseparable. I believe you cannot consider an improvement use case in healthcare without digital, or implement digital without an improvement mindset. Covid has shown that digital needs to be part of the ‘DNA’ of how we work. The two disciplines aren’t always aligned and I really want to support bringing them together more.”
Digital in Breid’s view is becoming more diverse in the NHS: “In 2003, being female and a nurse in a technology world was a very lonely place, but we now have our first national clinical nursing information officer (CNIO) and a growing community of local CNIOs. There are also more females generally in the technology world now, and more people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Having a more diverse workforce is essential; our workforce needs to reflect the communities we serve from the floor to board. The work of groups such as the Shuri Network has really helped in that respect but we still have a way to go. It’s really important equality and diversity are at the heart of everything we do.
“There’s more we should do in terms of encouraging more women into technology and promoting gender and racial diversity. I recently spoke to a head teacher from a school in an ethnically diverse community, who told me technology isn’t always viewed as a positive female career opportunity in some cultures. We need to work to change those perceptions.”
"Things have changed. An example is how we talk about the challenges of menopause. This was a taboo subject in the past."
Breid acknowledges that supporting female employees now features high on the NHS agenda. “Things have changed,” she says. “An example is how we talk about the challenges of menopause. This was a taboo subject in the past. I’m now hearing meaningful discussions about how we support those women. They’re really important discussions that have never happened before. Whether it’s technology or otherwise, the NHS as an employer is taking support for women in the workforce much more seriously which will hopefully attract and retain our very valuable female workforce. We do now have our first female NHS CEO!”
Genevieve Shaw, Editor