This site is intended for health professionals only

How to use a hackathon to tackle complex NHS challenges

Alison Tonge
By Alison Tonge
15 November 2023

Lifting our heads up high enough to look beyond immediate pressures is a constant challenge in the NHS but is essential in developing new services and anticipating emerging needs.

As part of Arden and GEM’s strategic commitment to enabling innovation, the commissioning support unit (CSU) recently held its first ‘innovation hackathon’ event to find and develop solutions to complex challenges facing the NHS.

Combining expert speakers, facilitated multidisciplinary working groups, discussion and voting, the session successfully identified ideas and themes which are now being taken forward with the intention of benefiting integrated care systems (ICSs) and individual NHS organisations.

The approach used in this hackathon is proving helpful in supporting future service innovation and has already led to a demand for similar events to help ICSs tackle specific healthcare challenges within their own systems.

Why a hackathon?

Hackathons typically bring together individuals with diverse skill sets and backgrounds to collaborate on solving complex problems or creating innovative solutions within a limited timeframe.

They provide a rare opportunity to combine highly experienced practitioners across disciplines including finance, digital, clinical and consulting, to enable a ‘short sharp’ input of their expertise in addressing a common challenge.

Many people, particularly senior level staff, have limited time available – often managing national roles alongside local commitments – and simply can’t be involved in multiple regular project meetings.

A hackathon, however, gives everyone a chance to be involved right at the start by identifying solutions requiring multiple skills and expertise to develop. It’s an efficient way to capture valuable guidance, knowledge and expertise to steer innovations early on.

Unlike other methods such as agile working, a hackathon is built around a healthcare problem, leaving the participants free to come up with their own ideas and not be constrained by what is already in place or proposed.

Considering a wide range of angles and hearing from different voices secures early buy-in and helps to ensure resources are focused where they are most needed and are appropriately supported to bring the expected benefits to bear.

Our approach

For this event, we selected four challenging areas: delivering quality through workforce transformation, digital transformation in primary care, performance transformation through use of better intelligence, and value improvement in corporate services. We engaged expert speakers to both inspire and energise participants at the start of the day, and share their thoughts on the specific challenge areas. Sir Mayur Lakhani CBE brought a focus on primary care with a talk on excellence in the sector.

Tim Robinson, Commercial Director for the East Midlands Academic Health Science Network, shared insights on research and innovation for integrated care while Professor Sultan Mahmud, Chief Digital and Innovation Officer for BT Healthcare, covered digital innovation in the NHS.

Participants were organised into pre-set multidisciplinary groups and given a specific challenge to work on. Our challenge questions all took the same open format of ‘how can we … through …’, for example, ‘how can we improve performance through better use of data and intelligence’.

Facilitators were armed with tools to take each group through the stages needed to capture fresh ideas and solutions. Each group was tasked with developing a long list of ideas, before shortlisting and eventually selecting their top idea to put forward for voting. The groups exchanged and took good ideas from each other to keep the momentum of innovation throughout the day.

Asking each group to select just one idea allowed time for each of these top ideas to be worked up further to form a value proposition for the most popular concepts.

Teams debated opportunities and challenges from different angles, what would need to be included to maximise the value of their chosen solution, and what investment or support would be needed to get it off the ground.

This level of analysis enabled the teams to gain full benefit from the skill sets in their groups, getting under the skin of potential barriers to implementing their idea and how those could be addressed. Colleagues were also able to listen and learn from each other about the day-to-day challenges that can frustrate successful innovation and develop ways to overcome them.

The day culminated with each team putting forward their top idea for collective digital voting. The ‘winning’ solution was then pitched in full to the whole group for feedback and questions, with additional expert commentary from the panel of speakers.

Critical success factors

There were several elements we built into the day which helped maintain engagement and strengthen outputs:

  • An appropriate mix of skills, expertise, and levels of seniority from different NHS organisations as well as private sector specialists
  • Cross-cutting ‘problem’ areas with wide-ranging impacts across different parts of the NHS, with expert input at the outset to prompt discussion
  • Carefully designed groups to maximise multidisciplinary expertise, with more than one group focusing on each issue to encourage different perspectives and enable the best ideas to surface
  • Short, focused facilitation to maintain energy levels, mixed with regular movement breaks to encourage networking, knowledge-sharing and opportunities to reflect and refresh
  • Voting to give all participants an opportunity to see the full range of top ideas and influence the winning proposal for development
  • Q&A session with the speaker panel and Arden & GEM representatives to allow participants to raise challenges that had surfaced during the day and seek input from different perspectives.

In taking this methodology forward, we will also be looking at ways to extend the opportunity to pitch ideas so that more concepts can be presented in detail, as well as strengthening facilitation to enhance contributions from all participants.


This first event was geared towards developing new solutions to support the NHS in tackling major challenges. The ‘winning’ idea was a proposal looking at how we can better use technology to improve access to GP services and reduce the 8am burden on practices.

The successful pitch is now being taken forward for further assessment and development by our team, alongside a wealth of wider ideas and themes that emerged from the hackathon, including:

  • Linking data to provide operational insight for better care navigation
  • Supporting technology adoption within primary care teams and patient homes to improve care
  • Providing intelligence to support service redesign and workforce planning
  • Using automation, process improvement and benchmarking within shared services.

Arden and GEM has committed to running an annual hackathon to enable future customer-led innovation. However, we also see huge potential in this approach for the NHS and wider ICSs, which has been borne out by the positive feedback from participants from this pilot event.

With a clear focus and the right mix of skills and experience, the hackathon approach allows a free exchange of ideas and information sharing outside of the normal constrains of organisational working. Together with other organisational development and integrated planning programmes, hackathons can help ICSs develop collaborative solutions to some of their most complex, system-wide challenges.

By Alison Tonge, Executive Director of Strategy and Innovation, NHS Arden & GEM CSU

Want news like this straight to your inbox?

Related articles