Bringing enterprising ideas into the NHS
Health Enterprise East (HEE) is celebrating 15 years of helping new medical solutions to be adopted by the NHS.
With the NHS chronically short of resources, HEE has quietly been creating a more positive environment, both financially and in terms of improved patient outcomes. It has helped improve morale too, for NHS staff who come up with solutions or products related to their day jobs and can see their projects adopted across the healthcare system. External developers, meanwhile, now have a streamlined adoption pathway into the NHS.
HEE started off at Papworth Hospital, explains CEO Anne Blackwood, who has been at the helm from the start, and its goal was always to improve the NHS’ service.
“Health Enterprise East started with three people based on the Papworth Hospital site who were employed by Papworth at the time,” Anne says at the organisation’s Milton Hall premises.
“It was funded initially by the Department of Health, and Papworth put funding bids in for four hospitals – Papworth, Addenbrooke’s, Ipswich and Norfolk and Norwich. Fifteen years later we’re a team of 15, still employed by Papworth but working with 25 organisations, including Great Ormond Street Hospital, Southampton and Exeter. We’ve grown from covering Cambridgeshire to the east of England, and now south England.
“Papworth has always been a very innovative trust and positive supporters for us.”
The NHS manages 168 separate trusts with 150,000 doctors and more than 320,000 nurses and midwives. There’s huge demand for time-saving, early-warning healthcare technology, but innovation is a challenge Cambridge-based companies have tackled head-on, with notable recent successes from CMR Surgical, Feedback, Congenica and AstraZeneca. But innovation is not the NHS’ core business, as Andy Williams, vice president for Cambridge strategy and operations at AstraZeneca, noted recently.
“Changing its paradigm is not what the NHS is about,” he said. “The question is how to encourage innovation in the NHS without breaking their budget. It’s not lacking in innovation. The industry needs to be making treatments which are cures.
“As a large company working with the NHS, we’re building a relationship but if it’s a small biotech they might get frustrated.”
It’s precisely because there are so many small companies and innovations emerging that HEE is so valuable, as HEE’s Joop Tanis, director for medtech consulting and business development, explains.
“The service to the NHS is based on the membership of 25 to 30 organisations to whom we provide services,” says Joop. “We do consulting for companies who are paying customers, and then there’s a lot of focus on SMEs – there’s lots in this region but also nationally and internationally. We’ve spun out six or seven companies and licensed hundreds of products.”
HEE offers what Joop calls “three buckets”. Insights include direction of travel – “what the market will look like in five or 10 years’ time”. Second is evidence – the finding, prototyping and testing of products and systems. Third is evaluation.
“We work with a number of companies for whom we evaluate roll-out in operational areas,” Joop says. “Currently we have three products being rolled out, including in local hospitals, and we analyse their impact and how it helps the hospital, how it helps the clinicians and how it helps financially.”
Anne adds: “Normally we have an exploratory conversation to identify where the gaps are and how we can support them.
“The company may not know how to get to the market or how their product will be received clinically. We’ll take a prototype to, say 15 clinicians to evaluate, which leads to access to a network of hospitals for clinical insight and product development insight.
“Other clients might want to know how to price their model. We can do demonstrations to NHS organisations and show them how they can save money with the product.”
One of Health Enterprise East’s goals is to assist those working in the NHS to bring their products and ideas to market. One successful in-house innovator is Dr Tamsin Brown, a community paediatrician at Cambridgeshire Community Services, whose Glue Ear app went on sale earlier this year. Dr Brown developed the product as a result of her daughter suffering from glue ear, and she invented her own headphones solution for those who have to wait up to a year for a grommet operation.
The head of the NHS organisation Dr Brown works for is Matthew Winn, chief executive of Cambridgeshire Community Services NHS Trust, who told the Cambridge Independent: “Tamsin is a fantastic advocate for ensuring the best outcomes for children. Her personal commitment to developing these innovative headphones has been inspirational and she will rightly benefit from the product when it appears in the market to buy, in line with our trust’s policy which supports innovation in the NHS.”
There’s no doubt the NHS has problems, including a massively botched £10billion computer system a few years ago, alongside loss of staff, underfunding, privatisation concerns and inept political management – let’s not forget the dispute between the government and junior doctors a couple of years ago. But that hasn’t stopped people innovating, and the message is being heard.
“The NHS does reward in-house innovation through the NHS Clinical Entrepreneurs Programme,” Anne says of the NHS England project initiated in 2017 to equip 370 clinicians with skills, knowledge and experience from the entrepreneurial world to transform healthcare.
“There’s lots of junior doctors who recognise that the NHS can be improved through innovation and who don’t understand why the NHS isn’t doing it more. If you’re a junior doctor on the wards and get paged by an old-fashioned pager, you read the notes on the end of the bed and you go to a computer at the end of the ward to access information... younger generations are not going to accept such a monolithic way of communicating. Even now a patient discharge from hospital involves a letter to a GP which arrives a week later. The technology is there but we’re not using it, but it’s getting to a tipping point.”
HEE is helping shift the needle. A new member, St George’s Hospital in London, signed on last month. Two new Cambridge projects have just been funded – a patch test for cervical cancer and a neutrophil counter to alert against sepsis. It has launched Medtech Accelerator, a partnership with the Combined Authority, EAHSN (Eastern Academic Health Science Network), New Anglia Capital and Essex County Council to facilitate early-stage development.
The next 15 years will be pivotal for the future of the NHS and having an organisation like Health Enterprise East in the mix is hugely welcome.