Highland Marketing: How can SMEs engage with the NHS?

Healthcare thrives on innovation. Small and medium sized businesses can be a great source of innovation. You would have thought the NHS would be keen to embrace their products and ideas.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The NHS may be national, but it is not a single monolithic institution, run by Whitehall; whatever the papers say. It is a loose collection of institutions, each with their own politics, personalities and priorities.

For example, at a national level there’s the Department of Health and NHS England; and their equivalents in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There are regulators that include the Care Quality Commission and NHS Improvement. There are bodies that exist to ‘do’ IT, such as NHS Digital; and its equivalents in the devolved administrations.

In England, the NHS is then split into dozens of commissioners, hundreds of acute and mental health trusts and thousands of GPs. At a regional level, they have all been asked to work together in sustainability and transformation plan ‘footprints’ to deliver the Five Year Forward View.

This plan to close a £30bn gap between NHS funding, demand and costs by 2020-21 sets out new ways of delivering care, and in practice undoes much of the Health and Social Care Act 2012, which created a myriad of new structures and overlapping responsibilities.

On the technology side, the STPs are also expected to deliver elements of Personalised Health and Care 2020; a national IT framework for the NHS that is being delivered at a national level through seven major workstreams co-ordinated by the National Information Board.

It is very complex, even to those working within the NHS. This makes trying to sell innovation difficult and time-consuming. However, with the right approach, there are immense opportunities out there.

Based on our experience of working with the NHS and with businesses for almost 20 years, we have found the following are useful pointers for SMEs looking to crack the NHS market.   

Be market rather than product-led

Innovators can be rightly proud of their product. But the product must make sense to a market in which specific customers will have immediate needs, mostly around reducing costs and improving patient safety.

Know your market and identify its wants and needs; understand the policies that individual commissioners, trusts and others are working to, and the strategies in place to address these.

Commissioners of health services will want to know what providers are doing to achieve agreed outcomes. Clinical commissioning groups work to an outcomes framework that sets out key metrics for local health economies. Which outcomes are relevant for your innovation?

Local providers will have their own priorities, such as reducing the time people are waiting for treatment, more effectively dealing with heavy users of health services (sometimes called frequent flyers), or cutting delayed transfers of care (the so-called bed blocking that can lead to people staying in hospital unnecessarily). Can you help with any of these?

Meanwhile, the Five Year Forward View looks to encourage new models of care. These can mean hospitals working more closely with primary and community care providers, to deliver more person-centred care (that helps keep people out of hospital). Secure information sharing across multiple organisations will be required. If you have a great idea for doing that, how compliant is your product with the relevant interoperability and data security standards, such as those issued by Dame Fiona Caldicott?

And then, there are patients. If you have a wonderful new service or app that will improve care for them, how are you going to get it into their hands? Which commissioners, group of clinical experts, or network of trusts is going to be interested, willing to pay, and willing to put the effort into securing the engagement needed?

Get the right messages for the right audiences

Because the NHS is so large, it is tempting to broadcast a single message about your great innovation. It might resonate with one group, but you need to consider the whole decision making unit if you are to increase your chances of success.

Identify purchaser and influencer roles, for example by searching STP and other planning documents, or looking at published business cases, and find out the buying cycle for your type of product or service.   

Have the right messages and value proposition for each group, and reach out to them in as many ways as possible. In our experience, emails rarely work on their own, even though people say they would prefer to be contacted that way. Phone calls, together with supporting materials, are often the best way.

Make sure your message is memorable, relevant, and delivered at the right time in the right format. And be part of the relevant community for your innovation, in person at events and virtually through websites and social media.

Patience and persistence can pay off

It is well known that the procurement cycle for the NHS can be lengthy and sometimes discourage innovation. New initiatives such as the Clinical and Digital Information Systems framework in London look to address this by making it easy for NHS organisations to buy services from a central place. Look at how you might gain a place on the framework, or partner with those that already have a place.

And be persistent. The more active you are, the more your message will be taken on board. This helps to encourage interest in your innovation. The NHS has some excellent people within it who do want to champion innovators. Finding them can be difficult, but once you do, you have a good chance of gaining a foothold in the market and building from there.

In summary, the more you know your market, promote the right messages, and stay an active participant, the greater your chance of success in a complex but immensely rewarding sector.

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