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From innovation to implementation in digital healthcare



Interview: Health minister Lord James O’Shaugnessy talks about creating the conditions for the development and scaling up of new digital tech solutions in the NHS

Lord James O’Shaugnessy uses an unusual metaphor in talking about the UK’s prospects for developing digital healthcare solutions. He says we have the advantage of three sectors in which we are world leaders – the NHS, the life sciences industry and academia – but that we haven’t yet worked out how these can form a stool.

In other words, the UK is fertile ground for innovation but it has not yet developed a world leading industry in the field.

As parliamentary under secretary of state in the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), he places a strong emphasis on developing the industry as part a response to the unrelenting pressures on the health service. It prompted his attendance at the launch earlier this week of The Promise of Healthtech report by tech start-up incubator Public.

Authored by his former ministerial colleague Nicola Blackwood, it highlights the potential in digital healthcare innovations, but also the difficulties in extending a successful pilot to a wider take-up.

Speaking to UKAuthority, O’Shaugnessy acknowledges that part of the problem is that NHS organisations are under day-to-day pressures that give them little space to foster and implement innovations.

“The question is can you make it easier for them to adopt innovations?” he says. “They want to, they want to improve outcomes and increase productivity, but it’s actually finding the clinical space and the money to do it, and having the rules of engagement, procurement frameworks and so on.

“There’s a lot the centre can do without telling people to ‘Do this, do that’ to make it easier for them.”

Landscape review

To this end, the DHSC and NHS have commissioned a review of the innovation landscape. The publication date is still unsettled, but O’Shaugnessy says it will include the issue of how to scale up successful pilots and encourage their take-up around the NHS.

He agrees that part of the problem is in the perceived risk, that trusts and clinical commissioning groups are concerned about unseen implications of taking on a new digital solution – especially when it has been developed by a small and unfamiliar supplier. But he believes it is possible to overcome the worries with the right supporting framework.

“The ethical and regulatory frameworks are incredibly important,” he says. “People have to feel confident that what they are doing is right, legal and will have the effect they are after.

“The world of digital takes you into questions like whether you regulate algrorithms or the company that has the algorithms. These are questions that we need to solve for NHS organisations that need to de-risk it for innovation.”

Some organisations might feel more comfortable working with established, high profile companies, especially as they can provide plenty of support in implementation. But this can lead to wasting the great potential among SMEs, and O’Shaugnessy sees part of the Government’s role as making it easier for them to do business in the sector.

There are initiatives taking onboard the SME effort, such as the Global Digital Exemplars in mental healthcare and the development of new care models under the series of ‘vanguards’ in care. But he acknowledges that it will probably need a further effort to promote a wide take-up of digital solutions that prove their worth.

State support

“There is a lot of money being spent for a range of programmes and a lot of it upstream,” he says. “We have to think about what’s the best, most effective distribution of state support.”

But he conveys the impression that he is optimistic about the outlook, and shares one of the views of the Public report, that NHS organisations and SMEs can make a case for further support by emphasising the potential to help deal with the long term pressures on the service.

In his address to the audience at the launch event, he made the point the financial problems of the NHS could provide an opportunity for some of those pitching to the market.

“The final thing is that I know the NHS sometimes gets a tough rap on whether it wants to take up successful innovation. I would say it is. There is a strong desire to find the things that work so we can take them through the system. I hope you will see the NHS as a true partner in this activity.

“Also, the prime minister wants to create a long term financial settlement for the NHS. This is a huge opportunity for anyone who wants to come in and demonstrate how extra funding can lead to better productivity. What better opportunity could there be for the healthcare sector?”

Image by Chris McAndrew, CC BY 3.0

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