Responding to COVID-19: insight, support and guidance

Devasuda Anblagan PhD, Senior Finance Manager at NHS England and NHS Improvement

Devasuda Anblagan began her first permanent finance role as a finance manager for NHS England and NHS Improvement in Cambridge in April 2020, having completed the NHS Financial Management Training Scheme. She is now a senior finance manager. Her role, which started shortly after the UK's first COVID-19 lockdown began, was initially focused on supporting the organisation's response to the pandemic, including PPE supply chains and distributions. Her work covers regional COVID-19 capital and revenue expenditure reporting, supporting the finance assurance team with capital investment assurance process and providing insightful and high-quality analysis of systems reporting.

Prior to joining the NHS training scheme, Devasuda pursued a medical research career as an MRI physicist. Having initially come to the UK in 2005 on a scholarship from Malaysia, and getting a First in Physics at the University of Nottingham, she was awarded a PhD position researching the MRI of foetal development in Nottingham, before becoming a Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Here, she was a member of the team involved in research into perinatal and ageing brains using MRI.

Devasuda is passionate about improving the healthcare system and medical research through understanding current challenges and future demand. Her experience within the NHS Financial Management Training Scheme includes roles at Cambridge University Hospitals Foundation Trust, Hertfordshire Community NHS Trust, management consultancy PwC, and Cambridgeshire and Peterborough STP System Delivery Unit. She completed her CIPFA professional qualification and became a CPFA in 2020.

When did you first become attracted to the public sector, and particularly public sector finance?

I suppose my medical research background in academia was in some ways public sector-related, even if not directly, as ultimately it was about contributing to patient health and wellbeing. I've always been interested in how patients are served, and I'm passionate about improving the health and care they receive. I've just taken a different route by moving into finance, finding another way to have an impact.

My PhD was based around MRI of foetal development, and applying it to patients. That was my first step – I wanted to contribute to public healthcare. My main research interest at the University of Nottingham and at the University of Edinburgh was perinatal and neonatal MRI analysis, to look at and identify potential health issues in, for example, premature babies, and try to address them to prevent future healthcare issues. But I began to feel frustrated by some of the funding models affecting research decision-making and long-term healthcare priorities. It shouldn't just be about fixing the problems now, it should be about strategies to address healthcare in the long term. I started talking to colleagues and other people in the NHS about how this could be addressed, and one, an alumnus of the NHS Graduate Management Training Scheme, suggested I explore that route into NHS finance.

What do you enjoy about working for the NHS?

The NHS's values are very important to me. It's very much public-focused and, for me, all the work I do should align with the values that I embrace. The organisation I work in now creates an environment that enables innovation, encourages partnerships between people and organisations, understands the needs and demands of the population, as well as developing strategy planning aimed at improving people's quality of life. That was really key for me – the backbone of it is improving health and quality of life for the patients I serve, be it as a scientist, as an MRI physicist or through accounting.

What have been the highlights or biggest successes of your career to date?

In some ways, my biggest success was around my academic career, doing my perinatal research. I'm very proud of my contribution towards improving the lives or the prospects of the babies who are born preterm, or babies who would have been going through pregnancy complications. Some of the research I did was around issues such as smoking, diabetes and substance abuse by mothers during their pregnancy, and how it might impact the baby's development. I published several journal papers over the ten years of my academic career, but one highlight was publishing in Nature Scientific Reports.

In my finance career, since completing the CIPFA qualification and becoming a CPFA, the standout moment has been when I worked with NHS England and NHS Improvement on the COVID-19 response immediately after I joined. It was all about supporting the healthcare providers in the East of England: ensuring that the PPE was located and delivered to where it was needed the most in the first wave, and other important work to help tackle the crisis.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing public finance professionals of the future?

A major challenge is that there is too much focus on short-term goals and failure to recognise that sometimes we need to choose or make short-term sacrifices to achieve greater benefit in the long term. That includes investing in research in certain areas, developing solutions and applying this to preventative interventions early on in life to avoid future, more costly treatments. Also, we need to invest in recruitment and getting people to really think about joining this profession in the public sector. We need to invest in training them because they are the future. Finally, I think we really need to modernise and invest more into technology and innovation to get work done more effectively, efficiently and more sustainably in the long term.

What book, film, or podcast would you recommend to anyone working in public finance?

I'd recommend two books that are not solely for people in public finance. One is How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. And second is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I believe that it's essential to have a diverse and inclusive workforce and workplace, and this includes a diverse range of personalities. These books have helped me to understand how to work more effectively with different people and how to get the best out of people by enabling them to give their best without expecting them to change. As long as you take care of your people, by giving them what they want and allowing them to flourish and be empowered, they are likely to do the job well.