\Healthtech Opinion/

Healthtech: How to make sure we don’t go back to square one

The UK's healthcare system has adopted digital technologies at a remarkable rate — but will the momentum hold up post-Covid?

By Anne Blackwood

As the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic continues to touch upon every aspect of our lives, there is little doubt that the way we deliver health and care services will never be the same again.  

In the space of just a few short weeks, healthcare providers have been able to rapidly ramp up use of digital health technologies to support safe delivery of care in these challenging times. From greater use of remote consultations (online or by telephone) and the electronic prescribing service, to mobilising artificial intelligence and big data to track Covid-19 cases and develop vaccines, digital health technologies have helped to lead the fight against the pandemic. 

Although we don’t yet know what the ‘new normal’ will look like, it appears that social distancing will certainly remain for the foreseeable future. This means that many of the new digital technologies currently being employed by the NHS will have more time to be embedded over the coming months. This includes technologies like the remote video consultation platforms approved by NHS Digital, including AccuRx and iPLATO, which have both seen a recent increase in demand and engagement from GPs.  

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An online GP consultation facilitated by AccuRx.

In hospitals too, digital health platforms could improve the efficiency of certain task-based activities, freeing up time and reducing costs. Take MediShout: its app helps clinicians instantly report issues and can predict future problems. Or Medic Bleep, which provides secure and real-time communication between healthcare professionals, replacing outdated pager technology and facilitating safe clinical handover at the end of shifts.

The NHS is in the process of launching a new coronavirus contact tracing app, designed to inform people if they have been in close contact with someone who later tests positive for Covid-19. Additionally, leading tech companies have been collaborating on technology that could allow smartphones to track other devices they come into contact with over a certain timeframe and may help ease current lockdown restrictions. 

Traditionally, new technologies have been slow to gain widespread adoption within the NHS. While many of the barriers for entry have been well understood for years — be they cultural, financial, the result of a fragmented system or down to a lack of change capacity within stretched healthcare services — there always appeared to be a great deal of inertia to overcome in order to take advantage of new innovations. Yet, in among the challenges, the current critical care crisis caused by Covid-19 has helped to overcome much of this inertia.

So, looking forward, what can digital health companies do to help maintain this progress?

Keeping up progress

Some traditional barriers may now be less difficult to break through. For instance, the pervading culture and structure within the NHS had previously meant that if practitioners had used certain methods and solutions for years, they were naturally more likely to be reluctant to change and adopt new innovative technologies and ways of working. Faced with a global pandemic however, we are likely to see far more willingness to try innovative technology solutions as we recognise the importance and impact of new ways of working. 

Despite this, companies hoping to see their new technology adopted will still need to present an evidence-based approach that highlights the specific clinical or operational need being addressed. A clearly presented business case that quantifies the perceived benefits from an innovation and classifies them into clinical, operational, economic and patient benefits, can help all key stakeholders involved understand the innovation’s value proposition. For example, if an innovation is aimed at saving clinicians’ time, evidence could be measured by carrying out a time and motion study to record how a current activity is carried out, then repeated and compared following implementation of the innovation. This allows for direct measurement of interaction, as well as qualitative data on ease of use. Evidence might also need to take into account other initiatives that could skew results — for instance, an innovation developed primarily to reduce waiting times (e.g. in mental health) could cross paths with another being introduced by a Trust, given this is an NHS priority. 

Revving up R&D

While it may be tempting in the current uncertain economic environment to put new R&D projects on hold and concentrate on sales of existing products, this would be a mistake. At a time when the NHS is more receptive to needs-based innovation than ever before, now is not the time to stop innovating. 

“At a time when the NHS is more receptive to needs-based innovation than ever before, now is not the time to stop innovating.”

To do this, companies will need access to additional financial support, particularly at a time when venture capitalists may be circling the wagons around their existing portfolios and not seeking to invest in new opportunities. This makes the government’s launch of a £1.25bn support package for innovative tech startups very timely indeed; in particular, the £750m in loans and grants to companies focused on R&D, offered through Innovate UK. 

Continuing collaboration

One of the most heartening trends of the last few weeks has been the many collaborations between health and care providers and industry. This direct engagement with the market has been critical in helping the NHS gain access to much needed equipment in short supply, including PPE and ventilators. Pharmaceutical companies have also been lending their expertise, putting aside long-held commercial interests to collaborate on potential vaccine candidates and utilising their knowledge in robotics and automation to support the national testing efforts. 

“We might also see bigger businesses seeking out more partnerships with innovative, mobile smaller players – rather than spending on less certain internal R&D projects.”

In future, as travel likely reduces, more local supply chains may work in the favour of smaller healthtech companies looking to maintain such relationships with larger organisations, and we might also see these bigger businesses seeking out more partnerships with innovative, mobile smaller players — rather than spending on less certain internal R&D projects. A key point to remember is that selling is all about building personal relationships, so smaller healthtech companies will do well to keep in touch to maintain the momentum they have now. 

Ultimately, it is vital that this spirit of collaboration and dialogue we have already seen is carried forward past this critical phase. By continuing to engage across traditional, clinical, scientific and commercial boundaries, industry can supply the creativity and invention needed to help solve the most important health and care challenges of the day, whatever the future may bring. 

Anne Blackwood is chief executive of Health Enterprise East.

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