Headshot of woman against blurred natural background Tanya Bowen Digital Non-Executive Director NHS

Tanya Bowen: becoming a Digital Non-Executive Director in the NHS

We are thrilled to launch our first in a series spotlighting the careers of Digital Non-Executive Directors (NEDs) with digital, data and technology expertise in the NHS. The role of a Digital Non-Executive Director in the NHS is a unique opportunity to drive transformative change in healthcare.

As the UK aims to build a digitally enabled health and social care system, digital skills are vital for NHS boards, ensuring a forward-thinking and efficient healthcare system aligned with the NHS Long Term Plan.

In an insightful interview, Tanya Bowen, a Digital & Data NED at the University Hospitals of North Midlands NHS Trust, shares her journey from the private sector to the NHS, highlighting the challenges and rewards of this transition.

Transitioning from the Private Sector to the NHS

With over three decades of experience, Tanya Bowen has led significant IT projects for top-tier retailers, developed digital strategies, and fostered innovation in global organisations, including BT Expedite.

During the pandemic, she felt a deep desire to make a meaningful impact and saw the numerous challenges and opportunities within the NHS. Motivated by her experiences, she transitioned from seeking a permanent executive digital role to embracing her role at UHNM, a position she has grown to love.

“All my life, I worked in the private sector, focusing on transformation and new tech,” Tanya recalls. Her move to the NHS was driven by a desire to make a tangible difference in healthcare, inspired by personal experiences.

“I thought, I’m doing such innovative things in the retail sector. We’re so far ahead of digitisation, why can’t my GP or local community provider experience these things too?” This question, fuelled by the fragmented experiences her father-in-law faced in the healthcare system, motivated her to bring her expertise to the NHS.

Embracing a culture of compassion and innovation

One of the most striking aspects of Tanya’s transition as a Digital NED has been the cultural shift. “It’s a caring and compassionate culture. If you’re ready for change and to make a contribution, this is the place to be,” she emphasises.

The NHS’s focus on patient care and compassion contrasts sharply with the profit-driven environment she was accustomed to, resonating deeply with Tanya and inspiring her commitment to improving lives.

Leveraging private sector skills for public sector impact

Tanya’s private sector experience has been invaluable in her role as a Digital NED. “One really does contribute… you can spot things that others in the flow of demand might miss,” she explains.

Her strategic insights have helped UHNM adopt best practices from the private sector, particularly in business case evaluations and strategic frameworks.

Likewise, given her experience in driving transformation she has been able to add value to broader system change and thinking. “The whole thing has to be rethought… it’s not about same old, same old tweaking the edges. It’s about systematic change at a technical, people, and process level,” she asserts, emphasising the need for a transformative approach to resource management and technology adoption.

Promoting diversity and inclusion

Diversity in leadership is a key area where Tanya sees the NHS making strides. “The Trusts are looking for diversity. They’re seeking people from various backgrounds to bring in different perspectives,” she notes.

Mentorship has also been important in Tanya’s successful transition to the NHS: “finding a mentor is crucial. It really helps new NEDs navigate their roles effectively.” Tanya herself benefited from mentorship (including reverse mentoring) on her journey to becoming a Digital Non-Executive Director and now offers guidance to others, recognising the importance of support and knowledge sharing in a new environment.

Challenges and learning curves

Despite her successes, Tanya acknowledges the challenges inherent in her role. “The amount of meetings, the amount of reading, the amount of learnings… it’s a lot to take on,” she admits. Balancing these demands with personal and professional responsibilities can be daunting, but the ability to make a meaningful impact on patient care and operational efficiency makes these challenges worthwhile.

“It’s a learning culture. I’m continuously learning at meetings and on board development days where we typically deep dive into high risk or emerging areas for further understanding and assurance”.

Strategic contributions and operational impact

Tanya’s contributions as a Digital Non-Executive Director have been both strategic and operational. She highlights her involvement in strategic documents, peer reviewing frameworks, and ensuring the NHS adopts best practices from the private sector. “I’ve taken great pleasure in peer reviewing many strategies such as the Children’s Hospital strategy, Clinical, and Digital Strategies. Fresh eyes can make the difference”, she says.

Strategic alliances are critical in the private sector; here too, in the NHS the importance of collaborative planning with system partners is key.  Tanya’s experience in strategic alliances informs her narrative at board meetings, challenging board members for better collaboration and improved population health outcomes. “We’re an anchor institution which means we have a significant impact on the wider population. This often means thinking outside the box”.

In terms of performance and finance, Tanya has advocated for the development of a framework for business case evaluations, ensuring that investments yield tangible benefits for patients and employees. “We now have an improved framework for the business cases… we can see what business cases were submitted several years ago and track their progress in phases,” she explains.

This structured approach has improved transparency and accountability, paving the way for more efficient use of resources. One of her proudest moments has been in the People Directorate, where the Trust’s investment in international recruitment efforts a few years ago have significantly reduced staffing shortages in critical areas today like neonates and maternity.

Digital transformation is at the heart of Tanya’s work. She advocates for a forward-thinking approach, and champions how areas such as AI and robotics should be considered to enhance patient care and operational efficiency. “AI is moving so quickly… we need to think about transformative ways to deal with challenges,” she says. Tanya recognises innovation is not just about technology but also Trust culture and improvement processes.

She recalls a committee meeting where she challenged the team to consider further potentials of AI and robotics, after hearing of some incredible successes. “We had one consultant who did 5 hysterectomy operations in one day with the aid of robotics. This is believed to be a first in the NHS and was not only a fantastic day’s caseload, but also reduced complications and recovery time”, she shares, illustrating the profound impact technology can have on efficiency and patient outcomes.

Final thoughts on becoming a Digital Non-Executive Director in the NHS

Becoming a Digital Non-Executive Director in the NHS is more than a career move; it’s an opportunity to make a profound difference in people’s lives.

Tanya’s journey from the private sector to the NHS illustrates the transformative potential of this role, exemplifying how leaders can drive meaningful change, ensuring that the NHS not only meets but exceeds the expectations of the communities it serves.

For those with a passion for digital transformation and a desire to make a difference, the role of a Digital Non-Executive Director in the NHS certainly offers a unique and fulfilling path. If you’d like to talk to us about that path for your career, reach out to the Digital, Data and Technology team here at GatenbySanderson via email.

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