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Doing the soft stuff

10 March 2020

Jo-Anne Wass.

As Jo-Anne Wass prepares to step down as chief operating officer for Leeds Academic Health Partnership, she reflects on the fascinating challenge and achievements of the last five years.










It all began with a conversation nearly five years ago.

I was about to embark on a fascinating challenge, not like any other I’d faced in my working life: how best should leaders come together across the UK’s third largest city to embrace and solve some of the hardest health and care challenges of our time?

There was no real blueprint.

Add to that, the effects of austerity on the public sector and changes to the funding landscape across higher education. The task ahead seemed daunting yet tantalising.

What kept me hooked was the vision.

Leeds has some fantastic and inspirational leaders across its anchor institutions. It is home to world-leading academic excellence, a number of NHS national organisations and a very high concentration of digital and health technology businesses. Leeds owns an enviable place on the map in so many outstanding ways.

Yet, by formalising a collaboration between the city’s academic and its health and care organisations, and by working closer with industry partners, there was a feeling that we really could achieve so much more. We could also support the implementation of the Leeds Health and Wellbeing Board’s strategy to reduce health inequalities and make Leeds the best city for health and wellbeing by 2030.

So, the city’s leaders launched the Leeds Academic Health Partnership (LAHP) and there began my mission.

For the first 18 months or so, a very small team and I worked hard with our partners to gain unique insights into where the potential for transformation lay. By mapping Leeds’ academic strengths with some of the most pressing health and care challenges facing the city, we identified and agreed the sweet spots or ‘synergies’.  There lay the potential benefits for the people of Leeds, for our health and care system and for our universities’ to strengthen their societal impact.

As I am about to stand down from my LAHP role, today I am looking back on what we’ve achieved together since those tentative conversations five years ago.

Our foundational programmes of work are coming alive.

The Leeds Centre for Personalised Medicine and Health is accelerating research,

evalImage of LCPMH logouation and adoption of new treatments and technologies and revealing new insights into preventing ill health. Influenced in its direction by the city’s Health and Well-Being Strategy, it focuses on personalised prevention, with flagship programmes aimed at arresting cancer and preventing frailty.


Image of nurse helping lady walk across GP reception

The Leeds Health and Care Academy, which went live last year, will help the 57,000-strong health and care workforce in Leeds work in a more joined-up way, as if they are one team.  Technological developments are radically changing how we all work and it’s vital that the health and care workforce are equipped for this. Our universities will help position the Academy at the forefront of learning, with a portfolio based on world-leading evidence, research and education.

Aligning with the city’s inclusive growth strategy, the Academy is already reaching into areas of the city which have some of the highest levels of deprivation in the UK, raising the life aspirations of their residents, and particularly their young people, and encouraging them to think about careers in health and care.

The Academy is such an ambitious and pioneering approach that we were invited to showcase it at an international conference in Washington DC last year.

We’ve also established the Leeds City Region’s first cross-sector partnership between the healthtech industry, the regional enterprise partnership, the NHS, local authorities, and five universities.  We think this is leading the way in the UK.

Surgeon and scientist discuss digital medical images.

Together, the partners will drive forward new approaches in improving patient and population health and care through better and faster healthtech innovation. The move also aims to radically speed up the region’s productivity and economic growth in the sector, which is seeing an unprecedented rise across the UK and globally.

And, in emerging work, we are exploring how we can improve the health of the people of Leeds by making it easier to learn from routine health and care data.  With the people of Leeds at the heart of how it develops, this project will aim to help researchers, care providers and citizens themselves better understand how to improve health and care services.

Each of these programmes is part of a unique and transformational citywide endeavour to help Leeds continually learn, collaborate and adapt, and to help its citizens live healthier lives for longer.

And it’s the dedication of our partners who are making this possible.

One of the things that is difficult for us to quantify or measure is how the relationships between our organisations have improved and strengthened since we formed our partnership.  But to any observer, it is clear that they have done so.

Sitting around the table with our board members or our operations group has been a privilege.   There has always been healthy challenge underpinned by a solid commitment to collaborate and move forward as one city.


Leeds is a city which sees what “could be” and turns it into “what is”. It transforms vision into reality. That takes courage, commitment and endurance. It requires a willingness to forego the comfort of the familiar and be prepared to adapt.  It takes humility, diplomacy, tenacity and empathy. It’s rare to see these skills combine.

Some call these ‘soft skills’. They’re anything but. In fact, they’re really hard, which is why they’re rare. As someone once said to me, “The soft stuff’s the hard stuff.” Those skills are alive and kicking in Leeds, which is what makes us such a progressive city.

As I step down as chief operating officer of the Leeds Academic Health Partnership, I have mixed emotions.

It’s been an absolute pleasure and an honour to work with such talented colleagues around the city and it will be hard letting go of such important work.  But I know that I am leaving this all in the hands of a fantastic and incredibly dedicated team who have helped take us this far.

However, as I will continue in my role as director of health partnerships at the University of Leeds, it’s not at all ‘goodbye’. The University is one of the founding partners of LAHP so I am sure that I’ll remain closely involved. The vision we share as partners is firmly embedded and there’s still so much more to do!

I have one parting message for my colleagues.  (I was not Yorkshire “born and bred”, so I am allowed to say this) … You, with your typical Yorkshire reserve, you have so much to shout about and be proud of.  Make sure you do.  You’re amazing.


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