Interview Series: Jenny Thomas, Programme Director at DigitalHealth.London

Earlier in August, DigitalHealth.London opened applications for the latest round of its Accelerator programme, which aims to speed up the adoption of digital technologies in healthcare throughout the capital and the NHS.

To find out more about the programme – which closes to applicants on 12 September – as well as the other initiatives run by DigitalHealth.London, which will celebrate its fifth birthday later this year, HTN spoke to the organisations’ Programme Director, Jenny Thomas.

Here, Jenny tells us about some of the most inspirational and impactful innovations that have passed through the flagship programme’s doors, DigitalHealth.London’s new online innovation directory, advice for prospective applicants, future plans, and much more.

Hi Jenny, tell us about your career journey

I’ve worked in the NHS for 15 years and in digital health for five. I joined through a graduate management training scheme and my previous role before this was a General Manager role at Guy’s and St Thomas’ – in my late 20s I was a General Manager for Women’s [Services].

Whilst I was there, I studied for an MBA at London Business School – that’s when I got really into health tech. This was back in 2014 [and] I was learning about all these different industries going through the tech transformation and healthcare was on the cusp – I got really excited by that.

I briefly dabbled with being an entrepreneur myself in ‘femtech’ – women’s health and how you can use tech to improve care for women. I’m passionate about women’s health, I think it’s a really underserved area of healthcare.

During that time, I came across lots of different health tech companies and I started to realise that several of them were addressing problems that I was struggling with in my department – one of them was DrDoctor – and so through collaborating with them I learnt, probably the hard way, about how you adopt a health tech innovation. That learning and excitement led me to [DigitalHealth.London] – they were looking for someone to set up the Accelerator programme and I just thought it was a brilliant opportunity to support lots of different health tech companies, to work with the NHS and help the NHS to benefit from all the amazing innovations out there.

I oversee all the programmes. The Accelerator is my baby because I set it up, but I have an amazing team [now]. I dive in to support companies as I need to and I do a lot more engagement work across all our programmes, it’s quite broad.

I’ve always been very excited about companies that solve quite basic, logistic problems within healthcare – I think that’s important – making life easier for staff, as well as the more ‘sexy’, exciting, life-changing innovations involving AI.

What else are you working on at DigitalHealth.London?

We do a lot more at DigitalHealth.London than just the Accelerator programme. We have four core programmes: the Accelerator; the Launchpad – about supporting earlier stage companies to launch their first product into the NHS; the Digital Pioneer Fellowship – helping potential health tech leaders to gain the skills and confidence they need to adopt innovation and deliver digital transformation projects; and the other area we do a lot of work in is evidence generation – that’s become one of the USPs of the Accelerator.

We support companies with thinking about what evidence they need…what research question do they need to ask themselves? How can they differentiate themselves and be more successful from a sales perspective by getting the right evidence? We’re looking at potentially creating an evidence generation hub to support researchers and companies outside of the Accelerator, as well.

Our fifth birthday is coming up this year – [so] we’re looking at ‘what next?’

One area, for example, is international and potentially partnering with some similar Accelerators elsewhere in the world, so that we can benefit from other health systems, and we can attract the best companies to the UK.

We’re celebrating our fifth birthday and using that not just to celebrate ourselves but to really start a conversation around how support we’ve given has helped, the impact, and what we should do next. We’ve recently launched a new website with an innovation directory, which is really useful as it enables NHS staff to find innovations in different categories, and to find fellows by professional group. You can zone into different ‘ecosystems’, whether that be women’s health or mental health to see the companies and who the NHS people are that are doing great work.

What makes a great applicant for the Accelerator – what tips do you have for our audience?

We look for three things: companies are going to be successful and get a place on the Accelerator if they’re tackling a really big problem within health and care, if it’s a real pain point and they know why, if they’ve got feedback from users and NHS staff; the second one is that they are a credible company with a good team and understand who their customer is; the third is that they’ll actually benefit from the Accelerator – there are lots of ways for small businesses to get support but will they benefit from our particular programme, do they understand it? Will they have the capacity to be able to attend events and get the most out of the programme that we offer?

If they’re a bigger company [it’s important] that they’re clear about what value we can add – it might be that they really need support in evidence generation and that’s something we can really help them with.

What are some of the most impactful innovations that you’ve seen come through the Accelerator?

The one that I’ve been really excited about is accuRx, who are from the first cohort. What accruX do is they allow GP practices, initially for free, to send text messages to their patients and to each other, within the practice. They can make the message bespoke and ask patients to send them photos.

The most exciting moment for me was when I first got a text message from my GP during the pandemic. One of my kids got an eye infection and they sent me a text that allowed me to go on video with them and send a picture of my kid’s eye to diagnose over the phone. I know it’s ‘just’ logistics, but I think it’s great and the adoption rate is amazing. I enjoyed seeing them grow and using the product myself.

Clearly I have a real passion for ‘femtech’, so I would probably also pick out Peppy Health [which provides digital expert support and resources for people, especially women, during ‘critical life transitions’ ] because I think women make up the majority of the NHS workforce. When women go through the menopause there is not enough support out there or enough understanding. Supporting women…I think that’s fantastic, particularly at a time when employee wellbeing is so important.

I do like the companies that support logistics – the companies like Feedback Medical and Infinity [Health], which supports with task management and allows clinicians to send photos to each other in an encrypted, safe way. Companies that we’ve supported in the AI space [too], like Skin Analytics from cohort two, with evidence generation and clinical trials. There have been a number of companies in the AI space that help with faster detection of cancer – we have another company in the current cohort that helps clinicians categorise and detect GI [gastrointestinal] cancers.

We really want to reach a range of founders. For example, 80 per cent of ‘femtech’ founders are women, while [only] around 9 per cent of health tech founders are women. Equally, we want founders from every ethnic background possible, because when you go through something you know what’s needed. It’s very different from when you manage a service. So, we want founders from all walks of life, all backgrounds, because then they will produce innovations that benefit everyone. That’s what’s really needed.

What advice do you have for people wanting to get into the digital health leadership space?

I would say reading is a great start, I do that every week. You identify who the key stakeholders are and it’s amazing who is willing to have a virtual coffee. Find a mentor or a supporter in that space – there are always lots of programmes out there. The Digital Pioneer Fellowship has transformed – if I look back at cohort one – band six/seven members of staff. The kind of roles they’re doing now…it’s incredible. There’s also the Topol Fellowship [and] the NHS Digital Academy.

Probably the most important thing to do is do something yourself. I learnt the most when I worked with a company and saw the value that they could bring but [also] went through the pain of ‘how do you get it adopted?’

Clearly, people can learn from others who have done it before them. But if you can see a pain point in your service that you think can be addressed through tech – no matter how small it is – then find a solution and make it happen. That will make you stand out the most, I think.

What have been your biggest challenges this year?

It’s a challenge and an opportunity but we’ve delivered all our programmes virtually. But just staying as close as possible to the companies and the fellows – we try and co-develop the programmes as much as possible and get loads of feedback. If there are things that just haven’t quite hit the mark or we haven’t done enough of, we know as soon as possible.

In some ways, it has helped us to improve our programmes. Particularly in the Digital Pioneer Fellowship, we know fellows benefit from having time face-to-face because they want to network and create a peer group. For the companies, though, they value networking face-to-face, but a lot of the educational stuff can be done virtually, as they’re living all over the country. It’s a big ask timewise to come to events, so I think we’ve delivered programmes more efficiently.

If I could make one thing happen it would be creating an ‘innovation day’ in the NHS. I know how busy people are…but if everyone had even 10 minutes to think or talk to a colleague about something that works in a different industry. If you could take one moment to share that and make the time, there’s so many amazing things out there that the NHS can benefit from.