UK HealthTech: The challenges and opportunities

HealthTech roundtable

We got a panel of experts together to discuss how technology is being used in the healthcare space. Yessi Bello Perez has more. 

The global HealthTech market is expected to be valued at £43bn by 2018 – presenting a very enticing opportunity for startups, scaleups and established players in the space to innovate and tap into the sector.

Although the use of technology and its potential to disrupt the healthcare industry has resulted in various headlines across the world, we deemed it important to delve deeper and figure out who’s driving these changes – and why.

Who are the innovators in the space, what areas within the sector are particularly ripe for change and what challenges are these disruptors facing? More importantly, are publicly funded organisations such as the NHS embracing opportunities to reduce costs, maximise efficiency and improve patient outcomes?

We answered these questions and more during a recent Tech City News roundtable, which brought together various experts in the field.

Out with the old

Similarly to the financial services industry, healthcare is plagued by the existence of outdated legacy systems which compromise efficiency across the sector.

But, while blockchain technology and AI are taking the finance world by storm, helping to drive down costs and optimise operations, one cannot help but wonder whether the same has happened in the healthcare sector.

Yinka Makinde, programme director at DigitalHealth.London, whose experience spans decades in the sector, thinks there are obvious similarities between both industries, but believes healthcare has a lot of catching up to do if it’s ever going to be on a par with the extent of disruption taking place in financial services.

Adam Boucher, a director at digital healthcare communications agency Emotive, agreed, noting both industries, known for their tight-regulation, are significantly risk averse.

Boucher highlighted there is an appetite for change brewing in the industry but more education is needed to showcase the opportunities afforded by new technologies and to entice internal stakeholders at these companies.

“I think it will come, but it’s going to be a slow burn,” he added.

Harnessing data

The biggest change occurring across the healthcare industry is related to the increasing availability of data, which is helping redefine the relationship between patient and doctor.

“Two decades ago, many members of the public very much held physicians on a pedestal, nowadays they have the ability to do their own research both before and after they see a doctor.

“Patients can now connect with people who have similar conditions or link up with carers looking after people in similar situations through online forums and specialist websites,” Boucher said.

Sinead Mac Manus, startup manager at Health Foundry, a workspace for HealthTech firms, also commented on the changing dynamic between patients and doctors. Although she believes this is largely positive, she spoke about how it could pose a significant challenge for physicians.

“One doctor can’t hold the information about all the diseases in the world because they may not have come across these symptoms before. We’re lucky in the NHS because of the amount of information that we have available but, still, many doctors may only come across some conditions once in their lifetime,” she said.

Beyond this, technology is also bringing patients and clinicians together, helping them choose appropriate care pathways together. But this level of interaction could prove somewhat problematic for some doctors.

Makinde said: “If you’re going to have apps in the future that are collecting interesting data about patient’s vital signs, etc, that data has to go somewhere, meaning that GPs might need to act on that data and they may not have the expertise or the time necessary to do so.

“It’s a real fear that GPs have, but there’s not enough evidence to show whether that’s going to impact them or not. It’s still too early in the journey,” she added.

Trusting data

Nick James, managing director at Trio Health, a health-focused content marketing and PR firm, spoke about the ways in which tech and the subsequent availability of data could increase patient’s anxiety levels, but could also empower them.

“Patients often become experts just because of all the available information they have access to,” said James.

Nina Bass, senior account manager at Trio Health, picked up on the point, adding that it was important to exercise greater control on the quality of the data available so as to avoid confusing both doctors and patients.

“We’ve done a great job so far, but we also need to verify the quality of the information that’s coming through so that there’s an element of trust,” added Bass.

She argued that, currently, people may initially self-diagnose using online data, but they still ultimately seek confirmation from a physical professional.

Long-term conditions

Technology, James said, is also helping to bridge the post-diagnosis gap by providing additional maintenance and support for patients.

Take diabetes, for example. “It’s now 10% of the entire NHS budget,” MacManus said, explaining how patients suffering from the disease only get a few hours of clinical time. They’re then, she added, sent home to manage their disease and are often left feeling confused and even guilty about whether they’ve caused the condition themselves.

Having to self-manage may also make it more difficult for patients to adhere to their treatment, and it’s this area that the group believes is ripe for disruption. In this instance, technology could be leveraged to improve the way in patients manage their disease and to help them stick to their established treatment plan.

In fact, MacManus spoke about the potential to harness the Internet of Things and wearable devices to radically transform disease management. “Managing long-term conditions is probably the biggest problem,” she added.

“But it’s also one of the biggest opportunities that we have for digital,” Makinde counteracted.

Innovation drivers

It’s evident there are plenty of opportunities for disruption within healthcare but who, if anyone, is driving innovation across the industry?

According to James, a lot of innovation comes from physicians and patients.

“Whether they have a condition themselves or they know someone who has, these individuals want to improve a particular aspect of the system,” he said, adding that innovation is also being driven by pharmaceutical companies creating devices or monitoring tools that help with treatment adherence.

Boucher highlighted how the perception of digital has changed across the pharmaceutical industry in recent times and how this has trickled down into the wider ecosystem.

“Digital was kind of like a separate channel and it’s only really been in the last three or four years that people have really got to grips with the fact that it’s part of a wider marketing strategy,” the director said.

Despite this, Boucher said efforts by pharma companies are generally focused on medical education and, more recently, patient support programmes.

“The other opportunity for pharma companies lies in clinical trials,” Makinde intercepted, explaining that a lot of research has been done to look into how tech could help with recruiting trial patients but also to engage them with their treatment plan.

The time is now

There’s also a lot of innovation going on within the NHS, Makinde added.

“One of the things that we do at DigitalHealth.London is trying to unearth some of that innovation by actually going out to the trusts and the organisations and finding the individuals driving it.

“There is a lot of activity happening on a national level, to try and make this happen. It’s a really good time actually, we’ve not had a better time. There’s lots of money going in, about £4bn-worth,” she said.

But the real challenge, she noted, is finding ways to commercialise it.

Entry barriers

Do tech giants such as Google or Apple have the upper hand when it comes to disrupting the healthcare industry and if so, where does this leave startups?

From her experience, Bass said this was certainly a concern being felt by the younger companies in the space, which may not be able to compete with the resources of larger corporations.

“I can see this happening outside of the UK,” Makinde argued, adding that the NHS would have a big problem with the industry being monopolised by a few technology companies.

“I don’t think they’d let that happen. I don’t think the NHS would let a Google or an Apple, or whoever it may be, have exclusivity,” she added.

Entering the market

But, if that’s the case, how can HealthTech startups enter the market? It’s important for startups to bear in mind the problem they are trying to solve from the onset, Makinde noted.

“Is it a real problem or a perceived problem and how does their proposition align with the issues that are driving strategy across the NHS right now?” questioned the programme director.

Startups must tick the boxes if they are going to get any sort of response from the NHS, she added.

Additionally, Makinde spoke about the need for founders to back up their propositions with real-world evidence.

The other barrier that tech startups must overcome is the fact the industry, particularly the NHS because of the way it’s funded, operates within a financial year window, meaning results and ROI must be delivered within this specified time frame.

“The NHS operates with a year-savings approach, which may not always align very well with innovators,” Makinde said.

MacManus also touched on the need to gain traction in the industry. In most cases, she argued, the technology is not complicated but it’s still important to think about ways in which people can easily adopt it. More importantly, founders should bear in mind how they can get the first “champions” on board and how this may help them onboard new users.

It seems it’s no longer a question of whether the healthcare industry is ripe for disruption or not, but more of a case of when and how. The elements are in place, it’s now up to startups to leverage these and solve the problems that urgently need remedying.

This article first appeared on edition 13 of Tech City News’ popular print magazine – The HealthTech Issue. Subscribe to receive your copy of edition 14 – The VR Issue –out in April.