Digital health entrepreneurs face NHS frustrations

Health secretary Matt Hancock has made digital technology a priority for the NHS arguing that it could improve quality while reducing costs – but entrepreneurs are getting different messages when they try and engage with payers.

Hancock has gone as far as creating NHSX, a new joint organisation tasked with promoting use of digital health technology, but aside from a big announcement in February there is little evidence that things have changed, according to delegates at the Talis Capital Digital Health Summit in London.

The event aimed to showcase the brightest rising stars in the UK digital health firm, with a plethora of innovative ideas aimed at both consumers and at improving healthcare services.

And while there had been some notable success stories, such as the online health service Doctorlink that has been adopted in various parts of the country, some delegates expressed frustration at the slow pace of change in the NHS, and the unwillingness of commissioners to try out new ideas.

These feelings were summarised by Andre Chow who co-founded Digital Surgery, a firm that provides surgeons with data analytics to help them improve and produce consistent results.

Although the company drew from data and gathered in the NHS and from Chow’s experiences as a surgeon it’s the US that is the target market for the startup.

Chow said that the vast amounts of money available in the US health system, combined with the more innovation-focused mindset, means that the company is focusing its efforts on the US market for the time being.

Working with the NHS – often criticised for failing to adopt new technology – is not a priority, Chen told pharmaphorum on the sidelines of the conference.

“We poke it (the NHS) now and again, but our main focus is the US,” he said.

As a counter-point, Sarah Haywood, CEO of MedCity, an organisation promoting the biotech “golden triangle” between London, Cambridge, and Oxford, acknowledged that getting digital services commissioned is tough.

Sarah Haywood

But Haywood said that startup companies don’t help themselves by trying to get projects funded without the kind of information that payers require.

Getting digital projects funded by the NHS is all about generating the data that will convince commissioners that it will generate benefits to patients and/or savings elsewhere in the system, she said.

Haywood said: “How do you make a health economics argument that makes the case for adopting that technology? They need to understand how it works. We can help companies with the kind of evidence needed.”

Melissa Morris, co-founder of healthcare workforce platform Lantum, said her product is beginning to gain traction because of her experience working in management in the NHS at the beginning of the decade when it was being reorganised under former health secretary Andrew Lansley.

However she reiterated Haywood’s warning that anyone trying to get services commissioned via tender contracts must have a strong case – and those failing to make the grade will have to wait a long time to get another chance.

“If you miss out on a tender then it could be three years before you get the chance again,” she said.


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