Driving innovation in the NHS
MedTech Futures Conference highlights in-house skills and a future of new services
There is so much to be proud of when it comes to the NHS.
To watch the US government attempt to organise even a basic healthcare service for all is to realise what a gem we have on our doorstep. There’s nothing comparable to the NHS anywhere else in Europe either – and yet a lot of homegrown expertise, a lot of innovation from within the service, isn’t being successfully developed. How can the considerable talent within the NHS be unlocked and developed for the next age of healthcare?
Welcome to the first MedTech Futures Conference, which took place at the Wellcome Trust Genome Campus on Wednesday (October 31). Organised by Milton-based Health Enterprise East (HEE), the all-day event gave attendees the chance to listen to and network with all sorts of healthcare workers, entrepreneurs, inventors, organisations, strategists and financiers, all pursuing the same goal: to create an environment which allows homegrown talent to flourish.
The 12-strong HEE team works with NHS organisations nationally and medtech companies globally to help develop new products and services which address currently unmet healthcare needs. The organisation, founded in 2004, offers services from strategic analysis and market validation to practical advice. Through its member services, HEE ensures that pioneering innovations from NHS staff are identified, developed and commercialised for the benefit of patients, staff and society. So how smoothly does worthy ambition translate into a one-day conference?
Very smoothly, it turns out. It’s a team job, of course, illuminated by individual contributions, and the day’s host Vivienne Parry, OBE, kept things moving briskly along, peppering her introductions and appraisals with bon mots and insights. Vivienne first introduced HEE’s CEO Anne Blackwood who said HEE “currently supports 25 organisations in the south of England who need help commercialising their ideas”.
“This is a time to look forward,” said Anne. “The future is already here in terms of technology.”
The morning session featured three speakers. Andrew Laidlaw is a ‘power AI specialist’ at IBM. He talked through the ways that deep learning is going to change healthcare. The second was Laurence Pearce, founder of xim, a creative software business specialising in digital health. Laurence talked through the ways that smartphones can be adapted to check vital signs, including heart beat and blood pressure.
The morning’s third speaker, Mark Slack, took the event up a gear. A co-founder of CMR Surgical, which has created the Versius surgical robot, Dr Slack’s background is in urogynecology at Addenbrooke’s. His talk took in the history of the robot, from Honda’s Asimo in 2004 to the Google car in 2012 to the Versius in 2018. He contrasted the benefits of minimally invasive robotic surgery with the results achieved by conventional procedures. He said that the infections caused by botched surgery includes site infections in around 5 per cent of cases: the clear-up treatment costs of botched surgery is, he said, £19billion annually in Europe alone.
And there’s something else to worry about, a by-product of post-surgery suffering – an increasing reliance on opioid-based medications.
“This makes Vietnam look like a skirmish,” said the Dr Slack, who qualified in medicine in Johannesburg and completed his obstetrics and gynaecology training in Cape Town. “78 people die every day from opiate use in the US. 75 per cent of heroin users started with prescription drugs.” He’s concerned about the US opiate addiction epidemic coming to the UK.
At the break for lunch I ask Mark about this.
“If you sprain your ankle and are treated at Addenbrooke’s they’ll give you an opiate-based product after waiting for an hour and a half,” he said. “It’s a crisis of our own making, and it’s completely frightening.”
Mark, Laurence and Andrew, on the panel for the plenary debate, considered “how will emerging technologies such as AI, data, robotics and enhanced patient empowerment transform the way healthcare is delivered in the future?”. Vivienne quizzed the panel on whether frugal innovation has to be built into new products. “We really have to think about not just the here-and-now of products, but the long life.”
“Yes,” Dr Slack replied. “We have to have clear evidence of cost effectiveness otherwise we’ll bankrupt the health services and the cost of that would be far greater. What we want to do – though I don’t like the term – is democratise surgery, and in particular have the outcomes of surgery made public.”
The first speaker after lunch was Dr Waheed Arian (full story in next week’s Cambridge Independent). Dr Arian was followed on to the stage by consultant physician Dr Ian Smith, deputy medical director and director of R&D at the Papworth Hospital. Dr Smith has been looking at sleep apnea and believes more research needs to be done into sleep patterns. He has a gadget which is just about to start clinical trials.
“The technology is a stand-alone radar platform which works up to two metres away and determines if someone has sleep apnea and whether they’re breathing,” Dr Smith said. “The device is the size of a Dinky toy and can go under the bed.”
If it works it will considerably improve the quality of life for the 660,000 sleep apnea sufferers in the UK.
Dr Tamsin Brown followed Dr Smith. Dr Brown’s development of a new glue ear device has been recorded in the Cambridge Independent (search her name on the website for the link). The development of Dr Brown’s glue ear solution is precisely the sort of innovation the NHS wants to encourage – identifying a front-line need, and finding and developing a solution, all from within the existing healthcare system.
After tea a second debate saw a panel consisting of Dr Bea Bakshi, GP and co-founder of C the Signs; Dr Maryanne Mariyaselvam, clinical research fellow at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and fellow at the NHS Innovation Accelerator (NIA) programme; and Dr Rozelle C Kane, GP registrar at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and co-founder of Hear Me. Hear Me is a company which has developed voice technology to measure and monitor mood disorders, allowing a precision approach to mental health challenges, and offering community-led early intervention and support.
The first MedTech Futures Conference wound up with a presentation to the winner of the HEE’s innovation voucher competition. The £5,000 prize is awarded to help progress an innovative medical, clinical or diagnostic idea. The 2018 prize went to Dr Aslam Shiraz, honorary specialty registrar at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. His winning innovation was a novel cervical screening patch that focuses on the detection of disease rather than the detection of HPV DNA.