When Sajid Javid set out his reforms for the health sector back in March, he outlined his vision for a tech revolution.
Healthcare, the health secretary argued, needed to follow the banking and shopping sectors, by using tech innovation to empower patients, leading to greater choice and convenience, and lower costs and health disparities.
This month, at the annual NHS ConfedExpo in Liverpool, he doubled down, speaking about a “small window of time where we can make a big difference” by combining valuable lessons from the pandemic with new technology and innovative ways of working. The Government’s digital health and care plan, he said, is soon to be published.
Of course, the NHS is already well advanced in using healthtech to bring positive change, whether through fitness trackers to monitor a patient’s vital signs, machine-learning algorithms to make hospital waiting lists more efficient, or AI powered apps to help people test for chronic kidney disease at home using their mobile phones.
NHS England specifically called for digitally-enabled care to go mainstream across the health service in January 2019. So the forthcoming digital health and care plan will not be starting from scratch.
Private investment has been key to realising many of these achievements so far, with private funding for healthtech startups soaring from £336m in 2016 to £3b last year. That puts Britain in third place behind the U.S. and China.
But some of the UK’s best known healthtech firms are going through something of a wobble. There have been questions over clinical value or business practices. There has been a loss of momentum in the pandemic healthtech boom and wider tech investment landscape in the U.S.
In the UK, some digital health companies have been criticised for focusing on primary care, allegedly targeting the affluent with a privatised offer, and creating panic among users by generating data that may not be clinically rigorous.
This has the potential to give healthtech a bad name. The real reason some in the private sector are struggling is down to a failure in understanding and addressing the key pillars required to successfully work in the complex world of healthcare and the NHS.
A healthtech solution must demonstrate it doesn’t just have a niche value for a small subset of affluent patients, but can instead impact at the wider population-level. Chronic disease management for diseases like diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease, for example, is an important area which can benefit from innovation.
The tech needs to generate meaningful clinical impact by addressing unmet needs, rather than at-home “wellness” tests without a real clinical basis. Digital healthcare should be about facilitating greater access and uptake, to help the NHS perform better against things it is already prioritising.
It also needs to have a real-life socioeconomic impact for those with limited access to healthcare services. The Minuteful Kidney app, used across the NHS, helps patients detect chronic kidney disease at home using their smartphones. It has had a significant impact, with a 54 per cent uptake in patients who previously haven’t tested at all for an average of three to four years, and many for much longer. And 40 per cent who have taken the test had abnormal results, indicating that they may have kidney disease. Our estimates indicate that the service could save the NHS more than 14 million dialysis hours annually, for every million people served.
All of this needs to be coupled with regulatory assurances. Public trust in the technology is paramount in order to scale adoption. As Javid gears up to reveal more of his plans over the coming weeks, he must hold his nerve when it comes to the power of tech as a force for positive change within the NHS.