Innovation and why it is important

Page last updated: 12 May 2022
Organisations we regulate

Defining innovation

While there is widespread recognition of the importance of innovation in health and social care, the term can mean different things to different people. In this publication, we use the term innovation to cover both invention (creating new ideas, products, services or models of care) and adoption (implementing what has worked elsewhere). It is crucial that the health and social care system is good at both, so that new ideas are developed to solve problems and the best ones spread quickly.

Innovation has been the driver of huge improvements in health and social care

Health and social care services today are radically different to those that were available 50 or 100 years ago. We have access to treatments that can cure, or enable us to live with, diseases that would in the past have killed us. Modern technologies have opened new possibilities for communicating and coordinating our care, and there is an unprecedented range of resources and advice available to us.

Innovation is an essential part of how we got here – it is the story of how new ideas were created and developed into products or models of care that improve or save lives, and how the best ones spread to become standard practice today. If we are to make similar improvements in the future, innovation will need to continue to be part of that story. Understanding how the system can innovate more effectively can help to accelerate these improvements and deliver better outcomes for people who use services now and in the future.

Innovation continues to transform health and social care today

In recent years, innovations have transformed care and led to improved outcomes and experience for people. These innovations range from less invasive diagnostic tests, ranging from algorithms to diagnose coronary artery disease to immunotherapy that can quadruple survival rates in advanced cancer, to the development of fall detection devices.

Exponential advances in technology, such as artificial intelligence (AI), have enabled care closer to home, while advances in genomic sequencing herald more personalised and effective care. We are also seeing technologies that are common in other areas of our lives being adapted to improve care pathways – for example, the increase in remote consultations and online care plans, and enabling people to stay connected with loved ones via virtual platforms and channels.

The challenges posed to the health and social care systems by coronavirus, an ageing population and an increasing number of people with two or more long-term conditions, mean that there is a greater need than ever for innovation

The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented challenge for our health and social care system, but longer-term trends will also put services under pressure. By 2043, almost a quarter of the UK population is expected to be aged 65 or older, up from about a fifth today.


Many people aged 65 or older have two or more long-term health conditions, but even in younger populations this is increasingly prevalent and the majority of people aged 50 or over have at least one chronic health condition. In a time of scarce resources, both in terms of workforce and finances, innovation is needed to try to meet this rising demand and support more independence at a later stage in life.

There is an urgent need for more innovation in social care – but there are also unique challenges in the sector

Innovation has the potential to transform social care, improving outcomes and putting the sector on a more sustainable footing. This might be through digital technologies but it can also mean new ways of working or new care models that improve outcomes for people. One example is the Shared Lives carer programme that enables people with support needs to live in their community and avoid admission to a hospital or care home.

In England, the large number of small organisations providing social care offers people a wide choice of services, but spreading good practice across the sector can be challenging.

Failure to adopt and spread the best innovations is leading to missed opportunities to improve care

Data on the uptake of NICE-approved medicines as well as feedback from people who use services and innovators, indicate that England is slower than other countries to adopt innovation. Also, there remains a high degree of variation in the adoption of best practice across the country. For example, while best practice guidelines state that 90% of lung cancer patients should receive a pathological confirmation of their diagnosis, the National Lung Cancer Audit found that this could ranged from 56% to 100%.

CQC’s 2018/19 State of Care report pointed towards several barriers to the adoption of technology in the adult social care sector, including a lack of funding, a low level of knowledge and awareness among providers and staff, and the fear that technology could replace personal support. The slow pace and variation in adoption means that opportunities may be missed to help people who use services.

Regulators and national bodies can do more to support innovation

In the past, the way that health and social care has been regulated and led at a national level has not always supported innovation as much as it could. Focus and resource has been put into invention at the expense of adoption, and there has been a lack of clarity around how to innovate well and what is expected of different parts of the system. This publication provides a starting point for addressing these issues and collectively supporting a health and social care system towards a more effective approach to innovation.

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