We talk to Dr Anne Blackwood, CEO of Health Enterprise East, about accessing the notoriously tricky NHS market. HEE delivers technology advisory services and innovation management to industry and the NHS, helping to address the challenges faced along the product development pathway
‘Usually, in life science technologies, you’re looking at targets that might be 10-15 years ahead. When the NHS Innovation Hub was set up, initially with funding from the Department of Health, it was an opportunity to move into an area where I could use my skills as a scientist to understand the clinical needs and to develop technology that would get to patients in maybe five to eight years,’ Dr Blackwood reveals. The immediacy was a big part of the appeal as was the chance to witness the change. ‘Medtech is much more tangible than drug targets – you actually get to see how patients interact with the technology and that’s interesting and rewarding.’
HEE commercialises IP working with hospitals primarily in the East of England but also operates globally. ‘If a nurse, doctor or therapist invents a new product or service that has commercial value, we help them take that to market. We help them check the IP, help them find funding, invest our own funding, commission prototypes, and do the early stage principal testing and evaluation. Then we will find a commercial manufacturer and distributer to take the product to market. So basically we’re helping to fill that early stage funding and skills gap, where you’ve got a clinician who’s identified a non-met need and they’ve actually thought of a solution and we can help them turn their idea into a commercial reality. We’re effectively a membership organisation and the hospitals that we work with sign up to get access to the services. So every time one of our products makes it into market and makes revenue, then we return a proportion of that to the NHS.
HEE’s Health Hack event is another way of identifying needs. ‘The unique thing about the NHS is that our clients are effectively clinicians themselves – they’re the idea generators but they’re also the end users. They can identify what they need but they’re also our ultimate customers. The hackathon idea came about because we were looking for ideas that we could support and we recognised that our clinicians are business experts, but not commercial experts and not technical experts’. The hackathon would unearth the clinicians’ ideas, which they would then take to tech, business and commercial experts to understand how to make them a reality. It’s a bringing together of different communities and cross-fertilising ideas.
‘What companies often say to me is that they’ve developed these products and have tried to push them into the NHS but the NHS say that’s not what they want. What they often find difficult to do is really get true insight. It’s important to help companies that are trying to get that real understanding of where the NHS is as a market, and where it is going over the next five years, and where technology can help the NHS because there isn’t enough money and there’s not going to be enough money going forward.’
Technology can be an enabler of change if the environment in which the NHS is operating can be properly understood. ‘You have to understand where the money goes, the system, how products get reimbursed, the type of things that you need if the NHS is going to buy products,’ she continues. ‘We get the Academic Health Science Networks to help companies really understand what the business case for their technology needs to look like in order for it to be successful. That’s always going to be multifactorial; it’s understanding the need, whether it’s cost effective and whether there’s evidence to support that…’
In the age of disruption, which areas of the NHS might benefit most? ‘I think the NHS is ripe for disruptive innovation and I think the whole AI data revolution is going to be critical. One of the things that is challenging at the moment is the issue surrounding data protection and the sharing of information between different services. The data revolution can really help proper integration of the services. But how do you get that real data revolution going so that an individual can be treated wherever they are in the system and that the money can follow them?
‘Medical devices are like drugs, they often change the way the patient moves through the system, or the way that the money moves through the system. So in terms of the point-of-care diagnostic, instead of going to a hospital for an outpatient appointment they can be seen by a GP or even use a diagnostic in their home. Those types of technologies really change the pathway and then they have a critical impact on the way that the money moves through the system. We can use our understanding, insight and our contacts within the NHS to really help companies understand where their technology will be placed.’
What does she feel about the future, in these demanding times? Access to the NHS continues to be slow and fragmented, whether the ideas are cutting edge or simply practical. It will need government intervention, Dr Blackwood believes. ‘How are we going to change the environment, how are we going to make the regulatory pathway easier for these technologies to access the market? There’s great technology out there – some already invented, some relatively new but some of it has been around for a couple of decades and still isn’t being used in the system. There are a lot of good initiatives but we’ve got to get rid of some of the process barriers. I’d like to see the government intervening more on that sort of level,’ she concludes. An urgent look at policy is more than overdue.
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