We spoke to Astrid Grant, Digital Change and Benefits Manager at Royal Surrey NHS Foundation Trust to discuss going down the non-clinical route, overcoming adversity and her advice for future digital transformation leaders.
Astrid’s story is part of a series of articles highlighting the careers of female tech leaders within the NHS. We’ve brought together these stories in an effort to prove that the route to leadership is never a straight line.
Born and raised in her Native Spain, Astrid studied towards a medical degree. During her foundation years, Astrid realised that the clinical route into healthcare was not for her. With options in Spain limited, Astrid made the move to the UK where she would study a masters in Healthcare Policy, Planning and Financing.
After successfully graduating, Astrid joined a startup where she provided strategic consulting for the NHS. It was here she realised how much of a barrier technology was in the NHS.
“How is it that we all have iphones in our pockets but the NHS is struggling so much. This sparked my interest in digital health and the NHS.”
With that in mind, Astrid joined Cerner and provided EPR for four years before Astrid found an opportunity within the NHS. Now she is driving digital transformation at the Royal Surrey NHS Foundation Trust.
Written down, Astrid’s route to her position now seems straight forward but, like many, Astrid’s journey was filled with setbacks and challenges many don’t even see.
Astrid, who was born with a cleft palate, suffers from a speech impediment.
“It’s very noticeable everytime I open my mouth. It’s always at the back of my mind when I’m talking to people – especially since taking up a leadership role.”
Naturally, this leads to insecurities around communication that compound the fact that Astrid is often the youngest person in the room.
“This might be a bit old fashioned, but sometimes it feels like I don’t have enough credibility. So it means that I kind of have to work a bit harder to prove myself. And it is a male dominated world, right. And even thought they probably don’t care that I’m young or female – I do feel like sometimes I have to work three times harder, just to make sure that I feel people will see me well.”
Astrid, who cut her teeth in healthcare and healthcare management, hasn’t got a formal technical background. But with a lifetime of passion and interest in technology, she is able to lead her digital transformation teams effectively. The key skill? Being able to quickly learn new things.
“You need to be a fast learner. I’ve been working in digital health for the past 5 years now and I didn’t know anything about technology other than how to use my laptop when I started. It’s really important that you’re willing to study, to inform yourself and make sure you understand the conversations you’re having. You need to speak the engineering language.”
On the side of softer skills, Astrid recommends working on your empathy. A skill important in any position of leadership, empathy has become increasingly important in the NHS due to the pandemic.
“Clinical staff are under a lot of pressure and if you’re trying to implement a new system it’s another ‘ask’ for them. You need to understand people might not be in their right headspace and you need to be aware of that.”
I’ve had the privilege of speaking to many leaders in the NHS throughout the series. One point that is raised time and time again is the togetherness, the roll your sleeves up and get things done attitude that has arisen. On the flip side of that, leaders have also raised concerns about the strains of this momentum – something Astrid echoes.
“I worked in the London Nightingale Hospital with Cerner and we were helping them implement an electronic patient record system. It was 10 straight days of work but it was one of my most rewarding projects. This kind of work would normally have taken months, so how do we keep that momentum?”
The speed at which the NHS was able to transform it’s working practices to ones that are safe and effective was incredibly impressive. The amount of kit and the shift in culture needed was nothing short of massive.
But, like many who I have interviewed, Astrid doesn’t want things to flip back once the virus is under control.
“We need to be careful we don’t go back to the way it was before. Having really slow pipelines, having 100 people weigh in on every topic. We need to keep the agile methodology that has come during the pandemic alive.”
Now 5 months into her NHS career, Astrid is on the bleeding edge of digital transformation in one of the world’s biggest employers. Astrid’s journey, which has been filled with learnings and setbacks, has prepared her for the responsibility she now has driving change for the NHS.
For those looking to start a digital career in the NHS, Astrid has this advice:
“Network, network, network. Find the people that are doing the job you want and talk to them.”
As for the future, Astrid isn’t setting her sights on the next step of the ladder. After a challenging period working in the NHS through the COVID-19 pandemic Astrid has thought long and about what it is that she wants from her role.
“All I know is that I want to have as much of a positive impact on patient care as I can.”
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