PathRed - Indaba

Innovation at the NHLS – Discover What’s Possible

The PathReD Indaba offers our readers an opportunity to get a glimpse of some of the innovations taking place within the NHLS. Below is a set of questions that were answered by some of our innovators:

1. How do you define innovation and why is innovation at the NHLS so important?
2. What innovative projects / initiatives have you been involved in at the NHLS? When did you identify that this was an innovative project / initiatives?
3. How would you describe your style of innovation leadership and mentorship?
4. What are some of the key perspectives and practices that help to shape a culture of innovation?
5. What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation at the NHLS?
6. What advice would you give to young and emerging innovators?
7. What are the guidelines or tools that can be used to implement innovation platforms within NHLS?
8. How can innovation at the NHLS be promoted?

Click the innovators name tab below for more insight…

Dr Petrus Jansen van Vuren, Medical Scientist










Center for Emerging Zoonotic and Parasitic Diseases, NICD




Questionnaire

Q: How do you define innovation and why is innovation at the NHLS so important?
A: Many people have great scientific ideas and there is a wealth of scientific information available in the public domain, through the publication of peer-reviewed papers on data generated in thousands of academic centres around the world. Innovation, however, only occurs when these great ideas or information are translated into a product or a change in way processes are executed, that leads to a tangible output for example revenue or increased cost efficiency. Innovation at the NHLS is paramount to providing affordable quality pathology service to the public of South Africa. As the largest pathology service in South Africa, serving public hospitals and clinics, the NHLS provides diagnostic services to the majority of people living in the country. Therefore, increased efficiency at the NHLS directly impacts public health in South Africa.

Q: What innovative projects / initiatives have you been involved in at the NHLS? When did you identify that this was an innovative project / initiatives? How was this innovation translated into service?
A: As a medical scientist in the Centre for Emerging Zoonotic and Parasitic Diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases NICD-NHLS, I am part of a team that is responsible for the referral diagnostics of emerging infectious diseases that often require work under higher biocontainment levels than the average human pathogen. Due to the nature of the pathogens we deal with, laboratory tests and reagents are often not commercially available. Therefore, we have to be innovative and develop, standardize and validate our own reagents to be able to perform highly specialized tests. These in-house developed tools for diagnostics are used daily in our centre to test patient samples as part of our diagnostic service. We are also involved in projects to actively discover and characterize pathogens yet unknown to mankind. Although technically not innovative, the discovery and characterization of novel pathogens could help public health laboratories to be better prepared for future outbreaks, and diagnostic tests to identify these pathogens in patient samples therefore have to be innovated. Recently our laboratory discovered an unknown virus which could have application as a vaccine vector, and a provisional patent application has been filed.

Q: How would you describe your style of innovation leadership and mentorship?
A: I believe that actions speak louder than words, and therefore I try to lead by example, by working hard.

Q: What are some of the key perspectives and practices that help to shape a culture of innovation
A: To innovate one needs to be able to recognize the need for improvement, whether it is of a product or a service. If one can bring home the idea that no one should become comfortable or complacent with the way they are doing things or the products they use, I believe people will become more innovative.

Q: What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation at the NHLS?
A: Funding, and finding a balance between performing routine duties of a diagnostic pathology service and doing innovative research. Most scientists employed by NHLS have to fulfil mostly routine diagnostic services while there is still an expectation of them to perform innovative research – it is quite difficult to marry the two.

Q: What advice would you give to young and emerging innovators?
A: Keep your head down and work hard. However, this should apply to anyone in general. So more specifically, innovators should stay up to date with current scientific literature in their field so that they can easily identify gaps that could be filled by doing innovative research. Do not lose heart during the scientific process, because only by failing a few times at trying something new will one learn and think of ways to circumvent problems.

Q: What are the guidelines or tools that can be used to implement innovation platforms within NHLS?
A: To motivate scientists to take the step from academic scientific inquisition to innovation that is put into practice, there has to be some form of incentivization for role players. Whether these incentives are financial or otherwise can be debated, but it could be in the form of increased funding for further research. Innovation research platforms have to be funded properly and sustainably. Innovation research could take many years before reaching a tangible product, and therefore funding thereof should be seen as a long-term investment. Innovation within the NHLS has to be guided by the health priorities of the country.

Q: How can innovation at the NHLS be promoted?
A: Innovation is a process driven by people, therefore the NHLS should nurture its most important resource, the staff. I believe innovation can be promoted by incentivization. One possibility is to present awards for innovations that have progressed from development to implementation, thereby promoting innovation through healthy competition.

Prof Himla Soodyall RDC, Chair










School of Pathology, University of the Witwatersrand, NHLS




Q: How do you define innovation and why is innovation at the NHLS so important?
A: My understanding of innovation is to be able to drive research through the pipeline from basic research using strategic thinking and entrepreneurship to a product that contributes to the national and / or global economy.

Q: What innovative projects / initiatives have you been involved in at the NHLS? When did you identify that this was an innovative project / initiatives? How was this innovation translated into service?
A: My involvement in research related to the genetic prehistory of African populations, and public engagement of science, quickly grew into public interest in genetic ancestry testing, which we have now introduced at the NHLS since 2006. This is now offered as a service at the NHLS and in partnership with the Origins Centre at Wits.

Q: How would you describe your style of innovation leadership and mentorship?
A: I think being profiled in the media and taking up the challenge of engaging with media and the general public on genetic heritage, genetic ancestry testing, as well as using my collective experience in the field of Human Genetics has contributed to the profiling of the NHLS. I have shown leadership by being an active participant in the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP) Working Group that make use of Science, Medicine and Engineering in addressing challenges on the African Continent. This, together with my participation at various fora as General Secretary of the Council of the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf), has afforded me the opportunity to represent the NHLS / WITS in my field both locally and internationally. I have supported and participated in activities that have promoted young scientists as well as women in science, and continue to inspire and steer individuals to operate at their full potential despite the challenging environmental landscape.

Q: What are some of the key perspectives and practices that help to shape a culture of innovation
A: To shape a culture of innovation, it is necessary to understand the operational landscape we work in. We have to break the silos of niche activities and work in a happy and transparent environment. When you engage strategically and respectfully, it is possible to get the buy-in from colleagues and peers who will go the extra mile to reach for the next goal, and the next, and so on…. This leads to thinking outside of the comfort mindset and brings out the best in people. When you inspire people to believe that without them you could have not achieved an outcome, i.e., make them feel part of the journey – creates win-win scenarios for team accomplishments.

Q: What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation at the NHLS?
A: We need to stop working in silos and pursue a proper process of engagement. The various divisions within the NHLS need to cross-pollinate, and improve communication from top-down and bottom-up. The work horses in the system, mainly the medical scientists, medical technologists and pathologists need to be consulted better when it comes to decision-making so that their voices could be heard and synergistic co-operation among staff can be established. The basic principle is that in order for the NHLS to drive research, the organisation needs to invest more in research. This is not just a paper trail, but a lived reality. Unless we aspire to this for research with an NHLS brand, driven by NHLS processes, we will not change the culture for innovation or overcome the challenges within the NHLS for innovation.

Q: What advice would you give to young and emerging innovators?
A: It is difficult for those of us who are senior at the NHLS who have had to weather almost two decades of challenges within the NHLS to give them the impression that the grass is green within the NHLS for innovation. For us to talk about innovation, we need to establish a well-grounded research ethos, so that young people can find opportunities that can make a difference and to harness those ideas to realise better outcomes. What solutions can we find to problems in health and in the delivery of a healthcare system that would benefit the society at large? How can we change what we are doing now to make things more streamlined and better? What resources do we need to achieve this? Who are the relevant stakeholders to associate with to move the idea through the pipeline for a better outcome? We need to teach young people to believe in themselves and in fighting for leaving a footprint of excellence in their journey in life.

Q: What are the guidelines or tools that can be used to implement innovation platforms within NHLS?
A: Respect. Trust. Collegiality. Acknowledgment. Enabling environment for research. These qualities have to be the “breath” of the NHLS – not air talk, and / or strategic documents.

Q:How can innovation at the NHLS be promoted?
A: Understanding and delivering on all issues raised from 1-7 above.

Prof Anne Von Gottberg, Pathologist










Centre for Respiratory Diseases and Meningitis, NICD




Q: How do you define innovation and why is innovation at the NHLS so important?
A: For me, innovation is changing to new methods if it makes things better – for the NHLS the field of medicine and technology is moving so fast, we have to keep abreast of innovation, so we can do things more quickly, more accurately, more cost-effectively and relevant to our population and their diseases

Q: What innovative projects / initiatives have you been involved in at the NHLS? When did you identify that this was an innovative project / initiatives? How was this innovation translated into service?
A: Molecular diagnostics – complementing conventional culture (MC&S) with newer molecular techniques and making this available for severe diseases like meningitis. I realised this was innovative, when people seemed surprised when we said we could do this, so throughout the country doctors and pathologists are still surprised that for routine diagnostics for meningitis we can offer more than culture. Our service is in particular to smaller labs and provinces without academic centres, as other labs are also starting to offer expanded diagnostics. We are also taking it to forensics – to assist in the diagnosis of sudden, unexplained deaths, to both help families find reasons why loved ones died, but also to ensure diseases of public health important are being diagnosed for public health action.

Q: How would you describe your style of innovation leadership and mentorship?
A: Collaborative – other people play a key role and do the hard work, and come up with the ideas; I am just part of the team.

Q: What are some of the key perspectives and practices that help to shape a culture of innovation?
A: Openness and transparency – this allows ideas to be bounced off other people, and to hear other people’s perspectives. Also important is some degree of competition and excellence – so that we do not remain comfortable with the status quo, but strive to find better ways of doing things.

Q: What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation at the NHLS?
A: The bureaucracy and systems that are in place that sometimes slow the pace of change. Also there is a lack of initiative in some areas and the ability to find solutions and to work collaboratively to make things better. Often people are working in silos, so do not question what the work is all for, and who are our clients, and how could we improve the service we offer/the work that we do.

Q: What advice would you give to young and emerging innovators?
A: Stop expecting things to be handed to you, rather go out to find and learn what interests you, share your knowledge, mentor colleagues from the very beginning – so teach anything you know that the person next to you is struggling with – we need to stop holding on to knowledge for our own advancement.

Q: What are the guidelines or tools that can be used to implement innovation platforms within NHLS?
A: Grant funding; more competitive hiring practices; collaborations with other institutions internationally.

Q: How can innovation at the NHLS be promoted?
A: Talking about it – making us think about it; so a conference like this is a great start!!


Prof Lynn Morris










Enterim Executive Director, NICD




Questionnaire

Q: How do you define innovation and why is innovation at the NHLS so important?
A: Innovation is about finding better ways of doing things. In an environment like the NHLS where the volume of work is increasing there is plenty of scope for finding innovative solutions and using new tools to improve services.

Q: What innovative projects / initiatives have you been involved in at the NHLS? When did you identify that this was an innovative project / initiatives? How was this innovation translated into service?
A: Our laboratory at the NICD together with researchers at CAPRISA and the Vaccine Research Center in Washington identified a broadly neutralizing antibody that is being developed as a biological drug for HIV prevention. I still remember the day back in 2010 when we realized we had found something interesting and it has been an exciting journey since then. Last year I got to visit the facility in the USA that is making the antibody for the clinical trial which we hope will start early next year.

Q: How would you describe your style of innovation leadership and mentorship?
A: As a researcher and supervisor, I push people to think about how they can improve but I also give them lots of space to explore. Innovation is about trial and error so you need to be made of tough stuff to survive inevitable failures. But the rewards are worth it.

Q: What are some of the key perspectives and practices that help to shape a culture of innovation
A: Strong leadership and mentorship is key. Also identifying talented individuals and building teams.

Q: What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation at the NHLS?
A: The NHLS has a strong service component and so it is often difficult for people to find time to engage in creative processes. But being a diagnostic environment it may also be about the type of people the NHLS attracts which would require some rethinking of the recruitment processes.

Q: What advice would you give to young and emerging innovators?
A: Innovation often comes from crossing disciplines, seeing how your problem can be solved by an approach used by others. So I encourage young people to read widely and develop an interest in different aspects of biology and medicine, including things like engineering and even space exploration.

Q: What are the guidelines or tools that can be used to implement innovation platforms within NHLS?
A: Innovation needs money and an enabling and flexible environment.

Q: How can innovation at the NHLS be promoted?
A: Having these kind of forums is important as it highlights that innovation is encouraged and celebrated at the NHLS. But definitely we need good systems to grow research and support innovations. We also need to identify and support talented individuals within the NHLS.

Prof Cheryl Cohen










Pathologist, Centre Head Centre For Respiratory Diseases and Meningitis, NICD




Q: How do you define innovation and why is innovation at the NHLS so important?
A: Finding newer, more efficient ways to do the job well. Innovation is important to keep us efficient and effective.

Q: What innovative projects / initiatives have you been involved in at the NHLS? When did you identify that this was an innovative project / initiatives? How was this innovation translated into service?
A: The Corporate Data Warehouse and the surveillance data which flows from this has helped to put South Africa in the lead for surveillance in Africa.

Q: How would you describe your style of innovation leadership and mentorship?
A: Work with others to get new ideas and seize opportunities when they arrive. Try to attract and retain good young people by providing a stimulating environment.

Q: What are some of the key perspectives and practices that help to shape a culture of innovation
A: A celebration and rewarding of new ideas. An organization which is open to change.

Q: What are some of the biggest impediments to innovation at the NHLS?
A: People are often stuck in the old ways of doing things and don’t want to take on new ideas.

Q: What advice would you give to young and emerging innovators?
A: Try to find an environment where there are like-minded people who can keep you stimulated and work with you. It is through working together that the greatest benefits are often experienced.

Q: What are the guidelines or tools that can be used to implement innovation platforms within NHLS?
A: We need to create an environment for sharing of ideas. Processes need to be streamlined to allow change and trying out new approaches.

Q:How can innovation at the NHLS be promoted?
A: The innovation summit is a good start.


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