Innovation: the key to fuelling positive change in the NHS

Healthcare presents a major opportunity for start-ups aiming to transform industries using technological innovation. The NHS is a healthcare delivery system on a massive scale. Our system needs to adapt to meet coming challenges – an ageing population and increasingly complex health and care needs. As demand increases, finances and workforce capacity are not keeping up. Incremental change will not supply the necessary solutions. Instead “step change” innovation is needed.    

Technological innovation can enable disruptive change, but the NHS needs to look both within, for ideas generated by front-line staff in response to unmet needs and to industry to find innovative solutions to service redesign challenges.

Technological innovation

A variety of emerging and established technologies are likely to play a huge part in leading innovation in healthcare in the next decade, from artificial intelligence to 3D bio scanning and printing, and precision medicine such as biomarker based diagnostics and therapeutics, robotics, blockchain and the Internet of Things (IOT).

A current example of a service improved through technological innovation can be found in the EarFold® implant invented by Mr Norbert Kang, a consultant plastic surgeon from Hertfordshire. EarFold® is an alternative procedure to correct prominent ears, which is thought to affect 1-2% of the UK population. The procedure inserts a material called a Shape Memory Alloy under the skin of the ear. In time cartilage re-forms around the implant, and the ear bends permanently into its new shape. This rapid and effective process, under local anaesthetic,has fewer side effects than normal otoplasty surgery and is far less intrusive.

Mr Kang had his idea after a patient died under general anaesthetic, during conventional otoplasty surgery to pin back her ears. With the help of medical technology consultancy Health Enterprise East, Mr Kang formed a spin-out company with West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust called Northwood Medical Innovation in 2010. Five years later, the company was bought by global pharmaceutical company Allergan and the product is now selling widely across Europe.

Hurdles to be jumped

As opportunities beckon there are unavoidable challenges in the UK healthcare system. The NHS needs to focus on improving value for every pound that it spends, but technology developers need commercial returns on investments to re-invest in further generations of products.

If these possibly competing interests are to balance, developers need access to clinical experts within the health service, to help them develop products that offer improved health outcomes at lower costs. User needs drive innovation, so insight in to those needs from the perspective of both service and patient is critical in the early stages of product development.

Looking forward

Examining the future of healthcare over the years to come, there are many drivers for change. There is an increasing need for new Models of Care including more patient-centred, personalised medicine, and better service integration. This can be achieved through better use of ICT and communication tools, and could see the beginning of the seven-day NHS. New treatments for chronic disease such as diabetes, cardiac disease, stroke, lung disease, and cancer will be needed, including increasingly targeted drugs, earlier and more accurate diagnoses, new technologies and health delivery systems. There will also be a drive toward less invasive, more out-of-hospital care.

These innovations can be holistically encouraged by drawing together respective service and patient needs, clinical insight and entrepreneurial technology developers from the UK’s thriving start-up community.  These developers will save both time and cost during the product development phase. Meanwhile, the benefit to the NHS will come in affordable and appropriate products, with patients profiting through access to new treatments, more personalised services and increased empowerment.

Dr Anne Blackwood, CEO of Health Enterprise East



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