Wolfson Economics Prize 2021

The 2021 Wolfson Economics Prize is all about hospitals...
30 March 2021

Interview with 

Lord Simon Wolfson


Hospital scene


Each year, the Wolfson Economics Prize is awarded to recognise fresh thinking that challenges the status quo in economics and public policy. And it’s a big deal: the winner gets £250,000. The 2021 Wolfson Economics Prize is looking for ideas that will “radically improve” hospital care. One reason for making this the objective is that England is about to spend £3.7 billion on what is being called the “biggest hospital building programme in a generation.” But what should be built, or changed? These are answers that Simon Wolfson, who founded the Wolfson Prize, is hoping this year’s entries will address to provide a blueprint that could guide the future health service overhaul. And he spoke to Chris Smith...

Simon - Basically, what we're looking for is ideas as to how to build a hospital of the future. And we're looking to improve absolutely every aspect of the hospital experience, whether that be the patient experience, the clinical outcomes, staff wellbeing, and the way that the hospital integrates with the healthcare system in its community.

Chris - Why are you doing this now?

Simon - 3.7 billion pounds is about to be invested in UK hospitals. And a lot of our hospitals are hugely outdated. The thing that concerns me is that we don't just build more of the same, or slightly improved versions of the past, but really go back to what a hospital could be and look at absolutely everything, from how people feel when they walk in. You know, do people feel that they're walking into an aesthetically pleasing, calm, well organised, easy to understand environment, or do they, as is all too often the case today, walk in somewhere that's extremely confusing, slightly intimidating, where the first reaction you have is one of confusion and fear. How the food is delivered to patients so that it's hot and appealing, and well cooked. Controlling infection within the hospital through designing the flow of patients, staff, ancillary workers, and visitors in such a way as to minimise cross-contamination

Chris - Why does this not exist already?

Simon - It's a bit like the old joke about two economists, actually. Two economists are walking down the street and one of them sees 50 pounds on the floor and says to his friend, you should pick up that 50 pounds. And the other economist said, well, if that was really 50 pounds, someone would have picked it up already. The reality is that innovation and new ideas require some form of stimulus to get the government to listen to those ideas, and make sure that they incorporate them into what they're doing. So, you know, my view is that a lot of these ideas would probably come to light without a prize. And some of them will be incorporated in these new hospitals, but this prize will get more ideas into the public domain and be able to be presented to the government in a single document that says here you go, this is what we need.

Chris - How's it going to work in practice, then? Talk us through the process of the call that's gone out, who you're hoping is going to enter, and how they'll be appraised, these entries.

Simon - We're looking for people with experience of working or building hospitals, to come together and present new ideas. So we're looking at everybody, from architects to clinicians, to nurses, to come up with their ideas as to how we could build a better hospital, the process will be two fold. The first entry is 10,000 words. We'd rather have entries that have got a small number of great ideas, in this first round, than something that is a comprehensive hospital design. The judges will then come up with five finalists, and those five finalists will then develop their ideas into something much more comprehensive, and we're looking for around 25,000 words. We're hoping to have a winner announced in November.

Chris - Is there a partner in this though, because obviously it's wonderful to stimulate this sort of thing, get these ideas flowing, bring teams together and come up with some really very exciting and innovative ideas, but will it just peter out after that?

Simon - There's definitely a perfect partner, and the perfect partner is the NHS. And what we're hoping is that by introducing this prize, wherever a hospital is being built, and whoever's responsible for it, there will be this winning entry where they can, in one place, see all these fabulous ideas laid out very clearly, well-explained, affordable.

Chris - And is it just the UK you're thinking about, or is the idea really that you could have a fantastic model that you could translate anywhere?

Simon - Our objective is absolutely that this is relevant around the world. At the end of the day, the clinical problems facing the hospital patients in Asia, Europe, America, ultimately is the same problem. And therefore the facility in which you're cured, will have lots of things in common, wherever you are in the world. The reason why we're focusing on the UK, and why the prize has started in the UK, is because this country is about to embark on a huge hospital building programme.


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