• Articles
  • February 12, 2020
  • Gareth Morris

In Conversation With: Katherine Church, Chief Digital Officer at Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership



We spoke to Katherine Church, Chief Digital Officer at Surrey Heartlands Health and Care Partnership to discuss the role of a technical leader in the NHS, the pace of change in the NHS and being curious. 

Katherine’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.


I Wanted to Influence Change for the 1.2 Million in Surrey

9 months into her NHS career, Katherine brings a wealth of digital transformation delivery and management from her career in the private sector where she worked across retail banking, investment banking and a number of start-ups.

“I really liked the idea of being able to influence change for over 1.2 Million people in the Surrey area. I’d already spent so much time on commercial projects that the opportunity to deploy tech for good was just completely irresistible.”


You Need to Spend Time Understanding the Building Blocks

Every organisation, every team and every product has different challenges and goals. This makes defining the Technical Leaders within a team a very difficult task.

It’s a common question we ask most contributors: do you need to be technical to lead a technical team? 

For Katherine, who has worked in massive transformation projects and sat in technology teams for the past 20 years, it’s about understanding the fundamentals. 

“You don’t need deep technical knowledge. But you absolutely need to spend time to understand the building blocks – how else will you know what good looks like?”

Similarly, not knowing the basic building blocks of the technology stack you’re working with – or the solutions you’re providing – will invariably lead to confusion. 

“It’s easy to be bamboozled in tech. People make careers out of jargon. Being able to see through that and be able to know the questions you need to ask to understand the end value for the citizen – that’s imperative.”

For Katherine, a big focus is on building a versatile team around her that do have the deep technical knowledge. 

“I’ve always sought someone who is half deep technical knowledge and half business. You need a team of people who can orchestrate a team of very deep technical experts as you need them.”


The Pace of Change Is Extraordinary 

The NHS, rather unfairly, has a bit of a reputation for being slow on the uptake when it comes to technology. Due to it’s mammoth size, it’s bureaucracy and it’s auditing due to public funding, many people believe not much can happen very fast in the NHS.

With a wealth of experiences in the private sector, Katherine thought the same – until she joined. 

“My hesitation was always around the pace of the public sector. But the pace of change is actually extraordinary. We’ve developed a whole set of technologies, virtual consultations being a really good example, really quickly.”

Now beginning the process of going back over the changes and looking at the right use cases and impacts for the patient, Katherine is fully focused on making the process more efficient to create a seamless patient journey and more seamless journey for the practitioner. 

“We delivered so much, so quickly, we now need to go back and make sure what we are designing meets people’s needs and does not exacerbate digital exclusion.  Too rapid a move to digital leaves people behind, and they will be the most vulnerable people we serve.”


Be Curious

Ambition and drive, a core skills for NHS leadership, has been highlighted by many of the professionals we’ve talked to throughout this series. 

For Katherine, who has led technical teams in both the private sector and public sector, the key to getting into positions of leadership lies in curiosity. 

“Be curious and have an open mind. If there’s something that looks interesting to you at the start of your career, just go for it! Work for brands that excite you. Propositions that you’re passionate about.”

This is especially true when you’re in the digital space where products can be the part that truly excites you.

“Be around products that make your heart skip a beat. Take the right kind of risks to put yourself in a position that you feel passionate about.”

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