Establishing the NHS in 1948 was, in modern speak, a paradigm shift. Healthcare for all, free at the point of contact, was a revolutionary concept that ushered a generation of spectacular health advances.
Back then, the UK’s population had just reached 50 million and life expectancy for men and women was 66 and 71-years-old, respectively. As the NHS lurches into its 69th year, the population has breached 65 million and the life scale has jumped to 79 and 83-years-old.
Much has changed since 1948 – the cost of the average house has risen from £1,791 to £216,674 – and the population keeps rising with the number of people aged over 65 predicted to hit 10.8 million by 2032, a 39% sector rise since 2012, according to the King’s Fund.
With the Government hotly pursuing £20 billion of savings from a creaking NHS, it is easy to feel the odds are stacked against its future but Matt Cross, UK MD of Hotwire, believes the frontiers of health are full of opportunity.
“I think we are on the verge of a new revolution, and ‘on the verge’ could mean in the next few years,” he says.
The key compounds are health tech ’s capabilities and the realization from public and private sectors that the dial can be turned in a positive direction to cope with the pressures of shifting demographics.
“We are seeing intent from healthcare organizations in the public sector and we are seeing the right level of funding and intent from the private sector so, when the two finally do come together and align, I think there is every chance of health tech having a huge impact beyond the realms of what we currently believe today,” he adds.
The metrics support the vision.
“The health tech market is now worth £55 billion and is predicted to grow beyond £220 billion-plus by 2020. There has been an influx of funding for the startup community and growing realization from healthcare organizations about the potential to improve patient outcomes,” adds Cross.
“That value growth naturally attracts Venture Capital firms and investors – they identify a huge market but the important point is that they seem prepared to invest long term. Some of these technologies that will shape the future of healthcare delivery will take five, ten or 15 years to come to full force, so the investment needs to stay with it.
“We are getting older and living longer and the knock on effect is that the patient base is increasing rapidly so there is an increased in need for more care in the home which is, in turn, driving mobile health tech such as tele and remote healthcare to the point that it now accounts for 40% of the overall healthcare tech market.”
The use of lifestyle wearables and apps have paved the way, both in technical proof points and public conscience, to position technology as a legitimate and powerful element of the nation’s healthcare, he says. The ingenuity is also there to utilize the innovations, streaming from a buoyant sector, to make a genuine difference to the access to and efficacy of healthcare in the near future.
“From the early pedometers to more sophisticated wearables and apps, health tech is coming into people’s lives almost by stealth,” says Cross, whose firm represents a roster of established and new, innovating companies. “We now need institutions, from hospitals to insurers, to adopt more technology so it progresses from apps and everyday wearables.
“The main problem is that we have a legacy system that is not set up to deal with the numbers of patients coming through. The GP surgery, normally the first point of call if you are ill, can be a bottleneck so we want to avoid pushing too many people down that pathway. Quite a lot of the new tech tries to provide a buffer for GPs and create a new efficiency.
“The ability for tech to use Electronic Health Records, which allows clinicians, hospitals and healthcare organizations to make smarter, faster decisions, is receiving a lot of funding. It means that clinicians can access data on their patients before they walk through the door and, in many cases, that data could cut lead to better, faster treatment and cut out the need for the visit, saving time all round.”
The Government’s Accelerated Access Review, launched in 2014 to speed up access to innovative drugs, devices, diagnostics and digital products for the NHS, was a good step forward but he cautions: “A good part of it was to get clinicians and patients involved at an early but this needs a huge and lasting commitment from the NHS. It is not enough for clinicians, patients and companies to want it to happen, there has to be push from the Government as well.”
The Department of Health also needs to be nimble enough to make sure the juggernaut of the NHS – with its 1.2 million workforce, 209 clinical commissioning groups, 7,674 GP practices and flow of one million patients every 36 hours – can harness technology quickly to make a difference for patients and provide its own innovators room to pursue ideas, adds Cross.
“It is unusual to see a health tech start-up that doesn’t have someone who has been involved at the sharp end of health on the board or as a founder,” he says. “A doctor, surgeon or healthcare worker has an idea but sometimes they can only make it happen with private funding. Unfortunately, because of some of the restrictions of the public sector, those ideas cannot be brought forward fast enough. There is a danger that some of the talent in the NHS may leave but the flip side is that some of our great experts are giving something back by developing products faster in the private sector.
“The NHS itself is facing employer branding challenges: why do you want to innovate at the NHS, is it even possible? The Accelerated Access programs show intent but they need to develop that further and persuade more talent to stay in or join the NHS.”
The healthcare innovation and delivery landscape is at its most fertile but companies are still speeding to market without considering a communications strategy, says Cross. “It is critical to the success of any business and one of the big pitfalls is that new companies do not address it until they are coming to market. They look around for a PR agency to talk to the media too late – they should be thinking about it many months before and building the advocacy for their product or technology.
“They need to think who will stand up beside them and vouch for their business, not just investors but industry influencers such as analysts and academics who can say this is a tech that we believe in and help push it into public sector. It is important to get an understanding of your value proposition before you approach the media, that way you have some proof points and people on your side that your customer, the public, can believe in.
“It is about having people who can validate your tech against what is currently out there, almost peer reviewing it, which is a familiar concept in healthcare. Building up those relationships and leveraging them when you are going out for external communications is absolutely vital.”
Cross cites growing potential across the spectrum with the efforts of Zipline, which uses drones to deliver medical supplies to remote areas, and Echo, a free repeat prescription management service already adopted by the NHS, exemplifying the rapid journey of tech ideas into service that benefit the public.
He adds: “Looking forward, I believe the biggest area over the next five to ten years will be mobile health tech and I hope the VCs and investors stick with it – a lot of them are and we are starting to see that private sector investment is working well with NHS need, a timely convergence between the two.
“The opportunity for health tech to have an impact on patient outcomes is massive.”