Prioritising NHS Staff Wellbeing: Patchwork Health and Dr Anas Nader

As featured in EU Startups

Across the world, healthcare is a major talking point. Long before the pandemic, healthcare has been a topic that’s fuelled political debate, has divided opinion and its no secret that healthcare systems have been struggling to keep up with demand.

The pandemic exposed the cracks in healthcare systems and demonstrated the crisis facing our doctors and nurses – the people that help us when we are at our most vulnerable, that literally save our lives. Healthcare staff are burned out, managers are overwhelmed and patient care is being compromised.

UK-based Patchwork is on a mission to unlock effective flexible working in healthcare to help solve this crisis. Founded by NHS doctors Dr Anas Nader and Dr Jing Ouyang in 2016, the company is empowering clinicians to work flexibly and gives employers an easier way to manage safe staffing – giving healthcare staff the time, headspace and work-life balance they deserve.

We sat down with Dr Anas Nader, who experienced burnout whilst working as an NHS doctor, about Patchwork, his personal story, and how tech can help improve healthcare for the future.

Dr Nader, you trained as a doctor and, like many clinicians, experienced burnout working for the NHS, before going on to found Patchwork Health. Can you tell us more about your story?

I love working as a doctor. It was my dream career from a very young age and I think that working in healthcare can be incredibly rewarding. But it’s also a challenging career, made more difficult by the intense hours that come with rigid rotas and inflexible leave policies. I lost track of how many social events, weddings, and holidays myself and my colleagues missed out on – caring for my patients came first, but it was difficult to strike a balance. I was under a lot of pressure and often exhausted, which eventually took its toll on my mental wellbeing.

I met my Patchwork Health co-founder, Jing, during my time as a junior doctor. He was feeling similarly frustrated with the challenges presented by the NHS’s workforce model, and by the limited options: stay in a career you love and have trained hard for, amongst colleagues who really need you, but risk burnout. Or step away completely to protect your physical and mental health. The lack of a middle ground is fuelling a wave of burnout across the healthcare service, which unfortunately has wide-reaching consequences for patients and clinicians alike.

Patchwork Health was born out of a shared desire to provide an alternative. We wanted to build a solution that would create better outcomes for employers, for clinicians and for patients, and ultimately make healthcare careers more sustainable. We’re already working with over 70 NHS organisations across 250 sites to provide an end-to-end workforce management solution which caters to the needs of all health and care staff as well as their employers and service users. Our technologies and services are helping to boost retention, prevent staff burnout, and support the delivery of patient care. 

What are the core values behind Patchwork?

Our key mission is to work alongside our healthcare partners to improve outcomes across the board. This means improving outcomes for staff, employers and for patients. We want to help protect the NHS for future generations, and this requires the building of sustainable systems staffed by happy, healthy clinicians.

Giving staff the flexibility to fit work around their other commitments and take time off when needed helps improve wellbeing and retention. Making it easier for different services to communicate and widening the pool of available staff enables employers to safely fill rota gaps more efficiently. And, being able to deploy staff in accordance with fluctuating service demand means that patients experience fewer delays and receive enhanced continuity of care.

Working closely with our NHS partners is pivotal to everything that we do. We want to ensure that our solutions cater to each organisation’s individual needs and address the nuanced issues they face. We strongly believe that technology is not successful when simply parachuted in. Collaboration, ongoing support and communication is key to delivering genuine improvement. 

The NHS has been struggling over recent years, even before the pandemic, to meet demand and retain staff. Now with the pandemic, healthcare systems are more stretched than ever before. How can healthcare systems better provide for employees with technology? And what is the end benefit for patients?

It’s true that the driving factors behind the current staffing crisis – which is currently seeing over 93,000 unfilled vacancies across the NHS – are complex, and extend much further back than the pandemic. This complexity means that the technology and solutions required to fix the crisis must themselves be nuanced and carefully tailored.

Currently, NHS staff have very limited input into how and when their shifts are scheduled. They face long hours, are often unable to book leave when they most need it, and are left with little scope for balancing their career with family or other commitments.

To achieve any kind of flexibility, the only option for many is to leave. Either to work as a locum via an external agency, or to take up a different job altogether. 1 in 5 NHS staff are currently considering leaving. This exacerbates the shortage of full-time staff and piles even more pressure on those remaining. The result? Increasing levels of staff burnout and the widening of patient backlogs and waiting lists. It’s a vicious cycle.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. By using innovative technology to introduce new workforce systems, healthcare organisations can provide staff with greater flexibility and fill shifts safely and more sustainably, without ever compromising on predictability over workforce planning. Enabling shifts to be advertised and booked online to an approved pool of clinicians, and allowing staff credentials to be easily and compliantly passported so they can work across different sites, will result in more resilient workforce management. Staff will gain greater autonomy over when and where they work, whilst organisations gain access to the staff they need to keep patients safe. 

What are the key challenges you encountered in establishing Patchwork?

For any healthtech company introducing a new solution, there are inevitable obstacles along the way. Long but necessary procurement processes, rigorous testing and strict regulations mean that products simply cannot of course be implemented overnight. I’m grateful for my personal experience of the NHS and how its systems work, as this has given me a strong understanding of the steps that need to be taken to enable successful adoption.

Besides this, working closely with our partner organisations has been essential to ensuring that our solutions truly work for every individual user and are fully interoperable. Workflows, staffing requirements and IT systems vary between NHS organisations. So, constant communication with NHS teams has proven vital for understanding the exact nuances our solutions need to address.

What has been your proudest moment as an entrepreneur?

As Patchwork Health has grown over the past few years and our team has expanded to over 100 members, there have been so many great moments to celebrate. But one of my proudest moments is undoubtedly having been able to play a part in keeping NHS organisations safely staffed during the pandemic and supporting the COVID-19 mass vaccination roll-out, whilst also pioneering new ways to enable staff to get the respite they need. Working in partnership with dedicated NHS colleagues undoubtedly makes me proud on a daily basis. 

What do you see happening next for Patchwork? What are the long term goals? Do you think you will expand to other countries and other public healthcare systems?

We’re really excited to continue working with our fantastic NHS partners, and to help even more organisations revolutionise staffing and boost retention. Long term, one of our key goals is to make flexible working the norm for health and care staff up and down the country. We want to continue supporting NHS teams to fill the gaps created by the staffing shortage, while simultaneously enabling staff to enjoy fulfilling careers; protecting their wellbeing to ensure utmost patient safety.

How did you finance Patchwork?

We’re VC backed and are incredibly proud to have raised £8.6m to date. We have some fantastic investors, including Praetura Ventures, and we were the first-ever investment for BMJ New Ventures.

Do you have any advice you would give 20-year old you? 

If my 20-year old self could see me now, I think he’d be in for a bit of a surprise! When I decided to study and train to become a doctor in the NHS, I never thought it would ultimately lead me to work in the healthtech sector. But I’ve now come to realise that working on the hospital floor is not the only way to help patients; tech innovation and driving system-wide change can also have a hugely positive impact on vast numbers of people. So, if I could give my younger self any advice, it would be simply to trust in my own experience, prioritise wellbeing, and always look beyond the surface-level symptoms of a problem to find new solutions.

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