HTN Voice: How do we secure a ‘second wave of innovation’ post-Covid-19?

Health tech marketing and communications agency, Highland Marketing, and its advisory board met in June to discuss some of the challenges that face oversees companies, start-ups and scale-ups in accessing the health tech market; and how they might be overcome so they can play their part in helping the NHS to ‘reset, not just recover’ after the coronavirus outbreak.

The Highland Marketing advisory board has been discussing the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on the deployment of health tech in the NHS.

At its March meeting, which took place just after UK prime minister Boris Johnson instructed people to “stay at home”, members noted the rapid roll-out of remote working and virtual consultation tools, which are unlikely to be abandoned once the emergency is over.

But at its next meeting, which took place past the “peak” of the pandemic, they noted that many areas of NHS IT have remained untouched and argued that organisations could “slip back” unless structures, regulation, licencing and procurement are changed and, critically, funding is maintained.

They also argued that even if these issues are addressed, a “second wave” of innovation will be needed to create truly digital first pathways. So, at its June meeting, the board discussed some of the barriers start-ups, scale-ups and SMEs face in gaining a foothold in the UK health tech market.

Four big challenges

To inform its discussion, the meeting opened with a presentation from Hassan Chaudhury, digital health lead for Healthcare UK at the Department for International Trade.

In his day job, he has two roles: to help UK companies that want to export abroad, and to health overseas companies that want to work in the UK. In the second of these roles, Chaudhury said he found companies typically encountered four barriers:

One: Navigation is hard

Chaudhury pointed out that the NHS is referred to as ‘a’ health service, when each of the four countries of the UK has its own version. The English NHS is the biggest market but the most complex, with an evolving set of planning, commissioning, and provider bodies, and an even more complex regulatory regime.

Two: Commercial models

Chaudhury argued that too many companies “have an idea, then develop a product, and then try and sell it to a customer”, while keeping themselves going with multiple investor funding rounds.

More companies, he argued, should develop an idea or product with a customer in mind, and think-through how the customer is going to pay for their services. He noted that some of the best-known digital consultation companies focused on the insurance market, which has both a clear need and a clear payment model, before turning to the NHS.

Three: Pilotitis

Chaudhury pointed out that “there is a lot of parochialism” in the NHS; and that even when a company that has made an idea work in, say, Dorset it will be often asked to prove again that it will work in, say Newcastle.

This is one reason the NHS’ existing incubator and accelerator schemes have a patchy record. Even if they get something working in one part of their patch, there is no guarantee the rest of the patch will take it.

Four: The digital alphabet soup:

If the NHS is complex, then its digital space is byzantine: the DHCS, NHSE/I, PHE, other arms-length bodies, NHSX and NHS Digital all have roles, but it’s far from clear how they operate in practice.

At worst, Chaudhury said, they “all bring in their own innovations” – an issue that has become a significant problem during the coronavirus outbreak, as departments and ALBs have turned to their own contact books of (usually) large suppliers.

Sounds familiar…

All of these issues were familiar to the board. Chair Jeremy Nettle said that when he worked for techUK, he often told newbies that “the N in NHS stands for numerous” and “go from there as in procurement terms there is no central NHS procurement structure to work with.”

While Andy Kinnear, the former chief digital officer of NHS South Central and West Commissioning Support Unit, argued that the 2012 Lansley reforms had created a “particularly complicated version” of the NHS in England.

The advisory board has said repeatedly that it would like to see the re-introduction of effective, regional structures to reduce fragmentation and drive decision making. But even if they emerge, they will take time to find their feet.

James Norman, healthcare chief information officer, EMEA, DellEMC, noted that this was one of the issues with the digital alphabet soup; the two organisations at the heart of it, NHSX and NHS Digital, “are still trying to define their roles.”

Ravi Kumar, an entrepreneur himself, went so far as to say that while the NHS could look like an attractive health tech prospect, appearances could be deceptive. On the upside, he argued, any company that could make it through would be “hardened” and ready for any export opportunity going; and investors do still like to see NHS success.

What’s the way forward?

So, what are the solutions? Kinnear argued that whatever the organisation of the NHS, there will always be a mix of people working within its organisations; some risk averse, some innovators; some into ‘big tech’ some up for working with SMEs.

The trick for new entrants and start-ups, he argued, is to find the people who want to work with them. Nicola Haywood-Alexander, a public sector CIO and new member of the board, said it would help if the NHS invested in these individuals.

In particular, she suggested, NHS IT needs to invest in making its leaders more confident about building data architectures and demanding digital that is designed to deliver a good experience for the user of the technology.

Big tech is not the enemy – and may be a good friend

Norman took a slightly different tack. He argued that in other sectors a well-established commercial model for smaller suppliers is to work with ‘big tech’ firms that have the heft and resources to deal with complex regulatory regimes, procurement processes, and customer landscapes.

Some health tech companies should take the same approach, he argued, and “get embedded with someone big enough to deal with all the hassle that the NHS is going to throw at them.”

Andrena Logue, a consultant based in Northern Ireland, agreed with this. However, she pointed out that while Northern Ireland has a vibrant university, research and start-up sector, companies often look to the US before they look to the UK for growth. So there is still a need to make it easier for health tech companies of all sizes to sell into the NHS.

One idea that hadn’t yet been discussed, she suggested, would be to refocus on digital maturity, which was started to gain some attention before the coronavirus hit. If there was more transparency about the digital maturity of different trusts and healthcare economies, she argued, it would be easier for companies to see where their ideas would work.

All business is local

Chaudhury felt there was “violent agreement” around the table about the issues. And if there was one, further thing that the advisory board agreed on, it was that innovation would not be driven by national bodies or networks outside the NHS’ normal operations.

Because, as Kinnear pointed out, they are not the ones who need what companies have to offer and they can’t deliver them customers. As Logue put it, innovators need to “cut out the middlemen.” Develop a business model, “get to localities and individuals and prove it.” “That will go a long way to resolving a lot of these issues.”