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The Spark Innovation Programe

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National Doctors Training and Planning has commenced The Spark Innovation Program, designed to empower junior doctors to innovate and make positive changes within the public health system.
In a traditionally bureaucratic environment where innovation is not encouraged, the Spark program not only enables innovation but actively encourages it. Through this empowerment of initiative, creativity and expertise, retention of staff is also addressed and morale increased.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

The Irish health service is a traditional hierarchical organisation. With an overdeveloped bureaucracy and a silo mentality, it is easy to understand why innovation has not been adopted as a central strategic tenet, particularly because in healthcare, where patients are the clients, the risk appetite for change is particularly low.

Worse, not only is innovation and change not encouraged it is actively frowned upon. This stagnant culture has an impact not just on patient care but also on retention and recruitment of staff and in particular junior doctors. Irish healthcare is currently suffering from a workforce crisis, hemorrhaging junior doctors at a much higher rate than our National Doctors Training and Planning Agency can train them.

The Spark Innovation Program, through its initiatives that engage, enable and empower innovation from even the most junior doctor on a team, also raise morale to aid retention of staff.

The Spark Program has 6 initiatives:
Spark Curiosity, Spark Seed Funding, Spark Ignite, Spark Generation, Spark Connects and BrightSpark.

• Spark Curiosity: This suite of initiatives is designed to start the conversation with regard to innovation and systemic openness to change, cultivating a culture where doctors are encouraged to explore new technologies, processes and practices, and consider how they could be adapted for use in Ireland.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DEPR)/NDTP "Pop up" Innovation Pod is a space that tours hospitals and engages staff and patients alike to own and drive an articulated Innovation Thinking approach, through workshops on Design Thinking, Business Model Canvas, Customer Journey Mapping etc as applied to healthcare.
The Spark Summit on Innovation and Technology in Healthcare is a one day event in partnership with Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland, showcasing new and exciting technology in healthcare such as Artificial Intelligence, Augmented and Virtual Reality, Surgical Simulation, Blockchain, Deep-learning and Chat Bots to name a few. The 2018 summit was sold out and attended by 500 doctors, academics, policy makers and MedTech Innovators.
The HSE EXPO, planned for March 2019, invites all stakeholders in health to showcase what innovation their sector is involved with. This will be targeted at all allied healthcare professionals and will have both plenary expert speakers and open paper sessions. This again creates a culture where innovation is to be celebrated and encouraged.
• Spark Seed Funding puts out two calls per year for innovative ideas and projects from junior doctors and provides funding of up to €3,000 to those who successfully pitch their ideas for process improvements, platforms or device design. Participants are mentored and given transferrable skills via workshops and by the National Innovation Fellow, who also liaises with hospital management to support the iterative process of a project within the system. For those projects out of scope of the funding available we link with an appropriate academic or industrial partner.
• Spark Ignite calls for medical device ideas that have demonstrated potential for scalability, and is open to all staff in hospital and community health organisations. We are trialling in one hospital group in 2018 with the aim of expanding nationwide in 2019. One-page ideas are submitted to a panel who vote on the best ten ideas. These project owners are then invited to participate in a mini-accelerator program to further develop their idea over six weeks, culminating in a pitch night where the winning pitch is awarded a bursary for further development.
• Spark Generation: The aim of this initiative to address some of the shortfall in skills and knowledge evident in our health service, with a focus on junior doctors. As part of this program we are developing a Health Informatics and Innovation diploma for junior doctors and also a Health Informatics Fellowship in Radiology that will upskill our future doctors to meet the technical needs of the future.
• Spark Connects develops the Innovation in Healthcare network by providing links and brokering relationships between like-minded individuals. By developing links with industry, academia and other stakeholders in healthcare, clinicians will have a network of resources to develop their own innovation projects and ultimately improve patient care.
• Bright Spark: Annually, all initiatives and projects within the SPARK umbrella are invited to compete for a Bright Spark award. Winning projects are celebrated and published. The individuals involved receive national recognition for their efforts, to reinforce the message that innovation is to be encouraged and celebrated. By recognising projects in this way, not only does the individual gain but so does their organisation and profession, which are recognised as milieu that foster a positive culture of excellence and innovation, and thus are great places to work.

Innovation Description

What Makes Your Project Innovative?

This is a revolutionary concept in Irish Healthcare. The Spark Program is creating a cultural shift by dismantling the traditional hierarchical structure that prevents and blocks innovation at every corner. By empowering those on the front line and the most junior of doctors to have a voice and seek independent funding for improving patient outcomes, we are building capacity for experimentation, openness to risk and a learning mindset to make the organisation more adaptable to change and the innovation process. Through the Spark Program the organisation as a whole starts to view innovation as a positive experience.
The Spark Program is adaptable and modified to quickly and responsively encompass lessons learned. The Program is managed by The National Fellow in Innovation and Change, a junior doctor taking a non-clinical year to manage the program; a clinician leading the initiative removes barriers and fosters better understanding of the difficulties encountered by doctors.

What is the current status of your innovation?

As of October 2018 The Spark Program is in the implementation phase. The Initiatives are developed and are being rolled out. While we are beginning to see the benefits of the Program, we predict that it will take another 2 years for the innovation dividend to be fully realized.
By assessing feedback, and taking action on the lessons learned from our experience thus far, we have been able to adjust the strategy and adapt accordingly, to make provision for the implementation of new initiatives in the near future, such as Spark Disrupts, which will actively seek out transformational change ideas and medical device ideas. We are collaborating with our partners to address any gaps in our skill-set such as patents, commercialisation and up-skilling our team accordingly.
The Spark Seed funding has increased in applications this year by in excess of 300% demonstrating engagement with the scheme and an appetite for change.

Innovation Development

Collaborations & Partnerships

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DEPR) partner: "Pop Up" Innovation Hub. We showcased the Spark Innovation Program at their recent Public Service Innovation Conference.
Health Innovation Hub Ireland (HIHI) is an Enterprise Ireland funded body, who has partnered with us on the Spark Ignite initiative.
The National Library Service: together we have appointed a Health Wikipedian-in-residence – this is a global first! We are creating an open access Health library for all citizens.

Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries

Staff- increased ownership of the system, better morale, more job satisfaction.
Managers- clear pathways for innovation; innovation stories that illustrate processes, challenges & rewards of innovation.
Patients– improved care and better outcomes.
Med Tech Start Up ecosystem- clinicians can help develop and test new products, improving patient care and outcomes, & bringing better products to market quicker.
Hospitals- attract brightest and best workforce with their culture of innovation.

Innovation Reflections

Results, Outcomes & Impacts

Spark Summit 2018 daylong event was successfully executed. The feedback was highly positive and the day was attended by 500 medical professionals.

Spark Seed Funding 2017-2018 has created improvements for patients and doctors alike in Irish healthcare with projects such as the Pediatric Medicine Passport and the Online Genetic Counselling Family Tree being shown to improve patient outcomes.

The 2018-2019 Seed Funding Round has received 300% more applications in its first call for submissions than last year. There are projects that we will support that will have significant cost savings to hospitals at a local level and subsequently the health service at a national level. This demonstrates an appetite for the program with junior doctors and is evidence that we are communicating the message to them.

The HSE EXPO will create a morale boost amongst all allied health care staff and aims to showcase in a positive light an industry normally highlighted for negative reasons.

Challenges and Failures

Achieving buy in from senior staff is always a challenge. By creating a pilot and demonstrating positive results it can be possible to overcome this resistance.
Our objective is to use the promotion and support of innovation to lay down new pathways within a healthcare system seriously hampered by legacy bureaucracy and silo mentality. Can we activate a new ecosystem, founded on principles of excellence, improvement, innovation and learning, that might eventually supplant the old system?
Some seed funding projects have failed, but they have failed fast and hard minimising the financial and personal loss. We have created a culture where failure is accepted as a part of the learning curve. We can learn just as much from why a project failed as from one that succeeded.

Conditions for Success

Leadership and Guidance:
The Spark Program created a pathway for innovation to be accepted in healthcare & made it achievable for the most junior of doctors in our health service.
The role of the National Fellow for Innovation in liaising with doctors and hospital management ensures a deeper understanding of the problems and difficulties encountered on the front line.
Creating a safe space where innovation can be explored and developed and promoting a culture that it's ok to fail but fail hard and fast encourages innovation from those who may have been deterred previously.
Collaboration with all stakeholders within the Innovation in Healthcare space develops the innovation culture and promotes it across several disciplines
Financial resources: although we have seed funding available, many of the projects submitted required very little financial assistance, but by having some money available to promote projects we could give them a validation that encouraged their development.


The Spark Innovation Program could be expanded to encompass all of the health sector in terms of other allied health professionals such as Nursing, Physiotherapy and all hospital staff. No member of staff works in isolation in a healthcare environment and any innovation projects that are implemented generally require collaboration between more than one discipline. Expanding the program would create a culture of innovation that truly reaches all areas of the organisation. Encouraging such collaboration between staff would further develop the ideas coming through and enhance overall morale, team work and communication within organisations.
The HSE Expo is the first step in consideration for this expansion. By assessing the appetite from other disciplines we will be in a position to make a business case to expand the program.

Lessons Learned

Over the past 15 months we have learned from all our initiatives, for example:

The Spark Summit: There has been such a huge interest in the Spark Summit, both from delegates & exhibitors, that we are planning on expanding and commercialising the event next year. We want to develop the Summit into an international Innovation in Healthcare conference which will be hosted over two days and can potentially host 2,000 delegates. This will attract bigger exhibitors and we will have a more diverse offering. Proceeds from this event will be used to fund the program & fund additional resources.

Logo: We received feedback from doctors that our original logo had problems. Some people found it difficult to understand. We listened to them and we have worked on improving this, creating a more logical design flow and changing some of the initiatives. For example, the Spark Connects replaces Spark Debate. The Spark Debate function has been encompassed by the Spark Curiosity function but there was a need for developing connections and enhancing the network to improve our program, hence we developed Spark Connects.

Spark Disruption: We have received a number of projects through the Spark Seed funding initiative that were out of the scope of this project. The project owner either required much larger amounts of funding or skills that we did not possess such as patenting. We are developing the Spark Disruption arm to develop these large scale projects.

Collaboration: By collaborating with other departments such as Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, National Library Service and Health Innovation Hub Ireland we have truly realised an innovation dividend. The collaboration projects enable both parties to develop and grow, we both learn from each other and ultimately the clients of the service will benefit. In cases such as the DEPR/NDTP "Pop up" Innovation Hub, this has benefited both organisations but ultimately will lead to better health outcomes for Ireland.

Supporting Videos


  • Implementation - making the innovation happen

Innovation provided by:


Date Published:

14 January 2017

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