Seamus O'Neil, chief executive of the Academic Health Science Network for the North East and North Cumbria, on bridging the gap between pharma and the NHS

What is your background and current role? 

I am currently the chief executive of the Academic Health Science Network for the North East and North Cumbria (NENC). My background is in NHS research management and before that I was a clinical scientist within the NHS (in genetics). 

What does your day-to-day work involve? 

Managing people, budgets and programmes. However, it is more exciting than it sounds. The people are fabulous, the budgets are a constant challenge and the programmes are all at the cutting edge of implementation in the NHS and social care. We are supporting a culture of innovation within the sector and working with industry on a daily basis so there is never a dull moment. 

What are the biggest opportunities for closer collaboration between pharma and the NHS? 

The easy answer to that is where medicines can be better used to reduce the burden on the care system. There are loads of examples out there where work is needed and partnership working between pharma and the NHS is flourishing within the AHSNs. 

What are the wider challenges? 

I'd have to say structural issues within the care system that make it more difficult than it should be to achieve change across the system: budgets [in] one place, savings in another, that sort of thing. The challenges are not all on the NHS side either: getting agreement on projects across more than one pharma partner is difficult to say the least. 

Do you think there has been progress in supporting SMEs to develop innovative products? 

Absolutely and our Innovation Pathway ( provides a model for how that support along the journey – from inception through evidence generation, to commercialisation, adoption and success – is being adopted across the 15 AHSNs. 

What are the key issues SMEs face in getting their products on to the NHS? 

The issues could be anywhere along the journey, from understanding their market, to having a clearer evidence base (for providers, commissioners and investors) through to visibility and piloting. There are many really innovative organisations in the NHS which constantly scan the horizon for products and processes that improve their outcomes and efficiencies. We are lucky to work with many of them in the North East. Getting uptake isn't all that difficult if the product is needed and the case is both convincing and well made. 

Can you tell us a little about the Q initiative and what it hopes to achieve? 

Q is a wonderful Health Foundation initiative. It seeks to increase quality improvement awareness and capabilities in healthcare and is creating a county-wide community of practice on QI. 

Why is this area exciting for you? It is exciting for us as an initiative in its own right, run by and supporting expert practitioners in the region and also because, in our patient safety work, we are reaping the benefits of using QI methodologies to drive improvements in care – reducing both avoidable harm and costs in the process. We are delighted to be one of three AHSNs asked to be early adopters of the next wave of Q. 

What are your goals for the future? 

To make AHSN NENC an exemplar of how a safe space, trusted and supported by local organisations, can add value as an honest broker. 

What advice would you give to people working in this industry? 

It won't be quick or easy, but nothing of value ever is. 

What are your passions outside of work? 

Only my family and friends would qualify as passions. I am a keen, but slow, cyclist and I enjoy occasional sportives and weekends touring in Ireland, Scotland and the North of England. 

The Q Initiative

Q is a UK-wide initiative led by the Health Foundation and supported and co-funded by NHS Improvement that strives to foster continuous and sustainable improvement in health and care. The programme aims to bring together frontline health and social care staff, patient leaders, managers, researchers and policymakers into a community to share ideas, enhance skills and collaborate on improvement projects. Three AHSNs – NENC, West of England and South West regions – have been chosen to help recruit new members to the community and expand the initiative.