A watershed moment for digital health in the UK

So many assumptions are being challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic that the vast majority of businesses have needed to reflect on how they operate and where opportunity lies.

 

As a sector, medtech should benefit from the increased profile and understanding of diagnostics and testing, making it more attractive to investors at every level. Yet many entrepreneurs will hope for more a profound outcome: an overhaul of the traditionally slow procurement processes within the National Health Service.

Innovators often find the NHS a frustrating organisation when it comes to adopting new products. The ‘NHS’ suggests one organisation but much of the procurement is still done on an individual hospital trust basis. In sales and marketing terms alone, this obviously adds to the burden, where the innovator has to achieve awareness and engagement with multiple different trusts even after they have proved the worth of their product to other parts of the health service.

System change may not come easily – but it happens. The global financial crisis of 2008 demolished the myth that markets always deliver the goods and saw banking giants requiring unprecedented bail-outs to avert financial collapse. The funding landscape was significantly changed as a result. In some of the most developed economies in the world, not least the UK and USA, the COVID pandemic has shone a light on our underfunded critical public healthcare infrastructure and institutions, which have been, in the view of the Financial Times, “painfully sluggish in their response.” There will surely be change, perhaps driven by the stark reality that we could well face another pandemic.

Data can certainly speed up healthcare. On paper, the case for telemedicine has been persuasive for some time. Private providers have launched services in the UK – Push Doctor, Babylon Health and the Now Healthcare Group, to name a few. But before this pandemic, telemedicine had yet to receive the widespread adoption seen in other countries, such as the USA.

 

As with most disruptive digital innovation, which brings services to our homes, the selling points are convenience, flexibility and near-instant availability.

Businesses have been attempting to convey that the benefits outweigh the lack of in-person human interaction – and that data privacy is sacrosanct.

The challenge here is huge, as the term ‘data’ arguably fails to capture the magnitude of what these platforms are asking patients to trust them with. Firms of all sizes are at pains to avoid high-profile data breaches – such as those reported by Babylon Health in early June – which severely erode public confidence at a time the sector can least afford to do so.

In unprecedented times, however, misgivings are largely being set aside out of necessity. Virtual consultations are reducing patient numbers in healthcare facilities, and on the public transport they might otherwise use to attend appointments. They are also removing the risk in-person appointments may pose to clinicians, and patients with symptoms which mandate physical examination.

Will this great British telemedicine experiment be a watershed moment for digital health? Or will the public demand a return to in-person consultation when the pandemic eases? Both innovators and healthcare chiefs will hope it’s the former.

A shift in public attitude and policy in regards to telemedicine is in part a marketing challenge. If solved, it could pave the way for adoption of other complementary innovation, including remote monitoring devices and real-time sharing of patient population data.

Greater Manchester is one of the places at the forefront of making this happen.  With the collaboration and flexibility afforded by its devolved health deal, the city region has put itself at the vanguard of the digital health response to coronavirus.

Safe Steps, a Liverpool medtech business, in partnership with a consortium of public sector spearheaded by Health Innovation Manchester, has designed and launched a new app which offers a live dashboard of COVID-19 symptoms within care homes.

 

Currently being trialled in Tameside, the data can be accessed by GPs and NHS community response teams to get a better overall real-time picture of the health of residents in care homes, which can inform discharge and admission decisions.

Manchester’s success could well be shared by other cities if changes to NHS procurement practices – which came into effect in March – prove successful and barriers to procurement and reimbursement start to fall away.

NHS England has assumed procuring power which would traditionally lie with Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs). And in London, the five integrated care systems (ICS) are reportedly functioning as a single entity. These measures are ostensibly to support the coronavirus response but will be in place until 2021 at least.

As the rest of the NHS in other parts of the UK moves towards adoption of the ICS model – one in which the default is no longer in-person, in-hospital treatment – as per the NHS Long Term Plan, we will likely see more collaboration; or as NHS England has described it, ‘whole-system working’.

If this truly is the tipping point for digital health in the UK, how can businesses ensure they’re ready to capitalise as tech-enabled integrated healthcare delivery becomes part of the new normal?

Putting yourself directly in front of influential decision makers remains important, but alone it is rarely enough.

Products or propositions must be positioned as directly addressing a genuine and quantifiable need – not simply adding to the noise in the medtech space.

Healthcare decision makers will buy from brands which successfully tackle longstanding questions about trust, efficacy and, ultimately, return on investment. Marketing and PR campaigns that blend hard science with powerful storytelling which captures the human impact of medical technology will continue to be the most effective.

To discuss how we can support your business with integrated healthcare PR and marketing campaigns, please get in touch with Jonathan Daly: daly@thisisinfluential.com

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