NHS England Chief Executive David Nicholson says significant changes with big implications for the health service are on the horizon, and has called on health leaders to focus on the opportunities this new system will offer.

Speaking to delegates at the NHS Confederation annual conference in Liverpool last week, Nicholson welcomed the coalition government’s move to create a “very detailed programme for five years, which is fantastic for us in the NHS”, and applauded its determination for change.

But he emphasised that a shift in mindset will be essential to understanding the new direction of the health service, where quality will be the main priority, and urged leaders to focus on the new opportunities to drive forward improvements rather than the how and when of the planned changes.

Nicholson also noted that it is critical that the transition to the new framework planned for the health service is led properly. Evidence shows that 70% of big change programmes don’t work and, of the 30% that do, the defining characteristic is not the brilliance of the idea, but the effective management of the transition, he stressed, and asked: “There is a fantastic record of managing change in the NHS, but have we got the will and the energy to make it happen?”

Going forward, key to driving improvements throughout the Service will be the existing QIPP (Quality, Innovation, Productivity and Prevention) agenda, Nicholson said, and reiterated Health Secretary Andrew Lansley’s call for all trusts to become foundation trusts and make use of the independence the status brings, and also encouraged primary care trusts to make a start on building capacity for GP commissioning. His message to health leaders was clear: “We can start now. Get on with it”.

Commenting on Nicholson’s address, NHS Confederation acting chief executive Nigel Edwards said it was “a typically trenchant call for NHS leaders to respond positively to the changes planned for the health service”.

“His message that the people responsible for running the NHS need to focus on delivering for patients rather than agonising about organisational structures is one which will resonate beyond the conference centre. It is a valuable reminder of the values that should underpin everything we do in the health service”.