By James Tout on 22 June 2016
How long does it take for tech innovations to be adopted by the NHS? The answer may shock you.
How long does it take for technological innovations to be adopted at scale by the NHS?
It was a question on many attendees’ lips at the Health Tech Innovators event at London’s City Hall on Tuesday this week, organised by MedCity, Tech London Advocates and the DigitalHealth.London collaborative.
The dispiriting answer: 17 years. The startling figure, revealed by Dr Lloyd Humphreys, a fellow of the newly-minted NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA), summed up the enormous challenge faced by companies developing the digital innovations on which the future sustainability of the health service depends.
How many firms, one wonders, fell by the wayside waiting in vain for their device, app or service to go mainstream?
The forum, part of London Technology Week and attended by around 200 health tech CEOs, investors and NHS insiders, carried the subtitle: How to be successful with the NHS and corporates. In answering this perennial conundrum, the advice was clear: there is no single path to success.
Public sector backing
The opening panellists made their pitch to convince the audience – many of whom were from tech start-ups and SMEs – that there are receptive ears within the NHS, regardless of how it may sometimes appear.
Anna King from DigitalHealth.London, a partnership which brings together London’s three Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) and MedCity, said that its mission was to “speed up good things in health and care” and more specifically, “the adoption of innovations that improve health and wealth”, suggesting a real desire to work with tech firms.
But the panellists also stressed this was no walk in the park. Martin Hunt, programme director of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR)’s ‘Invention for Innovation’ (i4i) scheme which provides grants to innovators, said his organisation (by way of analogy) was “not interested in a better mouse trap, but looking for a completely different way to control the rodent population”. Being able to show clear outcomes backed up with hard evidence was critical, he said.
This exacting view was echoed by Dr Jelena Aleksic, founder and CEO of GeneAdvisor, who said firms seeking funds – whether from the public sector, angels, venture capital or banks – needed to understand the requirements of investors just as well as those of their customers and patients.
Not that there was any lack of exciting innovations in the room. Chris Crockford, CEO of Cardiocity, explained how his idea for a device that monitors cardiac performance sprang from his time working as a Formula 1 engineer and being exposed to the advanced sensor technology used in racing cars.
Meanwhile, Matt Jamieson Evans, co-founder of Health Unlocked, started the social-networking inspired platform in 2009, which has now grown to a galaxy of 600 condition-specific communities for 3 million monthly patient users (and described in the event brochure, rather charmingly, as: “the LinkedIn for patients living with chronic conditions”).
Open for business?
The final panel, comprised of senior representatives from major corporate investors including Aviva, PwC, Janssen Healthcare Innovation (JHI) and Konica Minolta, addressed how innovators could approach private sector backers.
Brian Pomering, from PwC Health Advisory, said part of the problem in the UK was cultural – British investors have a tendency not to give a straight ‘no’ to entrepreneurs even if they think their idea won’t fly, prolonging the process. Their US and Australian counterparts were much more direct in this respect, he said.
But he also stressed that the impetus for change was now overwhelming, as the Millennial generation of ‘digital natives’ come to expect digitalised healthcare to be the norm, as in so many other sectors.
The investors conceded that it sometimes wasn’t made easy for SME innovators to navigate their structures and find the right person to advise them on raising capital. All were keen to stress, however, that their doors were open.
The session closed with an upbeat assessment of London’s potential as a health tech hub from Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates. TLA is a private sector led coalition of 3,000 expert individuals from the tech sector and broader community who have committed to championing London’s potential as a world-class hub for tech and digital businesses.
The missing ingredient – good communications
A point that wasn’t touched on directly was the importance of reputation building among key healthcare audiences. This was despite several mentions of Babylon Health, a London-based firm that has developed a web and mobile app allowing people to have a GP consultation at their convenience. The company, that is also branching out into personal health monitoring and AI, has placed PR at the centre of its growth strategy, helping to propel its founder and CEO, Ali Parsa, to the forefront of the health tech agenda.
Investors, NHS commissioners and clinicians are just like the rest of us – they digest a wide range of media and they’ll pay attention to innovations that are getting their voice above the crowd.
With many innovators questioning how they can get cut-through to the audiences that matter to them, one message that could have been made more strongly was that there are a wealth of opportunities through media channels and shareable content to amplify what you do. Doing this, however, requires an ability to strip down complexities and work out how your work fits into the wider health and care agenda.
With STPs, vanguard projects and a £22bn funding black hole to solve, those innovators who get their messaging right can ensure they’re part of the ‘in crowd’ of technologies the NHS adopts at scale.