Meet the innovator

Andrew Jackson is a West of England AHSN innovator and the CEO of ProReal – an immersive virtual world technology platform. Here, he talks about his drive to help young people learn better resilience strategies, and his involvement in our Future Challenges programme….

Name of innovation:  ProReal

Tell us about your innovation – what and why?

We have developed an avatar software – it helps people to express difficult thoughts and feelings. It uses virtual world technology to help people visualise their issues, to label emotions and see things from different perspectives.

What was the ‘lightbulb’ moment?

A few years ago, a client of ours asked why reflective practice and coaching conversations needed to happen face-to-face. That single question started our quest to find alternatives.

What’s been your innovator journey highlight to date?

We have had great support from the NHS generally. We won Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI Healthcare) funding, which helped us to start our evidence collection. The NIHR MindTech team have been hugely supportive, helping us to navigate the complexity and connecting us to clinicians and researchers. We are part of NHS England’s Global Digital Exemplar programme, and that means Trusts can learn from each other. More recently, the West of England AHSN has helped us to explore the area of young people’s mental resilience by working across different boundaries – school, council, health and evaluation – as part of its Future Challenges programme. The pilot project, named MiHUB, equips young people to understand and express their own complex emotions around particular problems they may be facing. I’ve been impressed with the way the AHSN has joined the dots – working across education, evaluation, health and industry is not easy, but we have much more in common than we first realised.

What’s been your toughest obstacle to date?

In the last few weeks, a senior NHS leader described many of our mental health services as being “on their knees”. Years of underfunding make the adoption of innovation very challenging, and that affects patients, clinicians and innovators like ourselves.

Hopes for the future?

Imagine a future when young people learn resilience at home, at school and online, learning better strategies for dealing with life’s challenges and doing so in fun and engaging ways. And NHS clinicians having different technologies to choose from to help them to provide care to the many, at scale.

A typical day for you would include…

Lockdown brings a certain rhythm – often delving into research in the quiet of a morning, before chatting online with our team about our customers and projects.  Most days include meetings with NHS Trust teams – finding ways to work through the adoption barriers. It can be hard work sometimes, but we’re always in awe of the sense of purpose and compassion – despite the hurdles.

Best part of your job now?

The highlight of my day is when someone tells us how ProReal has really helped someone make progress. Last week, one clinician shared a story which estimated several months taken out of a treatment pathway, simply because they were able to name the main problem and see life through someone else’s eyes.

What three bits of advice would you give budding innovators?

Oh, I’d ask questions rather than give advice. Can you find the sweet spot of what is needed, what you’re good at and love doing, and what people will pay for? How clear are you on your own motivation and purpose? An accountant once told me that starting a company is like bringing a child into the world, and that metaphor can be helpful sometimes.

If you are a healthcare innovator looking for business development support and tools, do get in touch with us at the West of England AHSN. We can help. You can visit our Innovation Exchange for expert advice, information about funding opportunities and to make contact with our team to access support.

 

Meet the innovator(s)

Brenda McHugh, from the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families, and Harry Stevens from Rugged Interactive, are West of England AHSN innovators and project partners in our Future Challenges programme. Brenda is a Consultant Psychotherapist, and has recently been awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Years’ Honours list for her services to education. Harry is the Commercial Director and Joint-MD at Rugged Interactive. Here, they talk about their passion for helping young people build mental health resilience and their involvement in our Future Challenges programme ….

Name of innovation: SmartGym CardioWall Resilience Programme, Gloucestershire

Tell us about your innovation – what and why?

One in five pupils in the UK leaves school without basic skills in literacy and numeracy. The same children often exhibit behaviour or distress beyond what schools feel able to cope with. In our view, uptake of any treatment overtly publicised as having to do with ‘mental health’ is often very limited by children (whether alone or with their families), because of the stigma associated with the term. Because of this, we were both very excited to launch this initiative that is purposely fun and non-stigmatizing.

SmartGym Gloucestershire is a joint venture by Rugged Interactive and the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families, supported by West of England AHSN and Gloucestershire Health and Care NHS Foundation Trust. The project aims to help build young people’s mental resilience using a combination of enjoyable physical activity and cognitive exercises.

A central part of the SmartGym project is Rugged Interactive’s CardioWall technology, a speed and reaction trainer that uses gamification to motivate the user and increase engagement. This powerful combination of physical activity and mental stimulation has shown to have a number of beneficial effects on mood and cognition.

Alongside physical activities on the CardioWall, the innovation also includes tailored mental health support which helps embed and reinforce users’ personal development. Exercises focus on developing social skills, behavioural management, coping with underachievement and disengagement from school. This has been developed over several years by the Anna Freud Centre and has already been tested in a number of youth and education settings.

The SmartGym Gloucestershire programme is a 10-session project that resembles circuit training. Young people follow a set of weekly performance drills and track their progress over time. The drills are designed to be fun and motivational, and help young people build relationships and learn more about becoming resilient.

What was the ‘lightbulb’ moment?

Anna Freud and Rugged Interactive have been working together for several years, using Rugged’s CardioWalls in a number of schools around the UK. Similar to the SmartGym programme, the CardioWall has been used alongside mental health support to encourage children and young people to become more resilient in school and life outside of school.

When we were introduced to the West of England AHSN Future Challenges initiative, it became very clear very quickly that our partnership could be a great foundation for launching a new programme. Working with the AHSN over the last two years has been an amazing experience. The team has given us fantastic support, and their expert insight into how to work with the NHS, and how to put together a suitable proposition and explain our initiative, has been invaluable.

What has been your innovator journey highlight to date?

One of the best moments of the project was the first SmartGym session we ran at Newent School. The 20 students selected were all in their SmartGym branded T-shirts, and excited to start using the CardioWall and learn more about the project. There was a lot of laughter, fun and enjoyment that day and it was rewarding to hear so many positive comments from the first session.

What has been your toughest obstacle to date?

Unsurprisingly, the coronavirus pandemic heavily disrupted the delivery of the SmartGym project. Phase 1 was cut short, and phase 2 of the project had to be completely adapted to adhere to new social distancing and coronavirus restriction rules. We are extremely proud that despite the difficulties, together with Newent School, we have managed to complete the programme, and we now look forward to the results.

The project would have run very differently if it was not for coronavirus, but what it has shown us is that the programme can still deliver clear benefits for the students despite major disruptions (lack of attendance, limited external support, smaller groups and no school pupil mentors).

Hopes for the future?

We are excited to see the final results from the SmartGym Gloucestershire project, and we are eagerly looking forward to continuing to support Newent School, further developing and reinforcing the learnings and positive behaviours learnt through the SmartGym programme.

Overall, it is clear to us that SmartGym can be a very powerful tool for helping young people build invaluable mental health resilience, and our goal remains to roll it out into every secondary school in the country.

A typical day for you would include…

Brenda – Supporting young people, their parents and their teachers in our Alternative Provision Family School for two days each week.  Developing new social, emotional, and academic pathways to help children who have fallen into the vulnerability gap to thrive.

I spend the rest of each week delivering training across the country, using the latest research, translating findings into practical and cost-effective support for reducing educational and social exclusion. Talking to researchers and policy makers whenever we can.

Harry – 60% of the time spent talking to current customers, potential customers in new market sectors, and my team of sales and marketing experts. 10% responding to email (customers, suppliers, colleagues).  The other 30% is spread across financial planning, strategic planning and – wherever possible – researching latest development in our own market and new target sectors.

Best part of your job now?

Brenda – Hearing typically hard to engage young people describe themselves as champions rather than failures as they complete the SmartGym programme and become coaches for other young people. They give other young people hope and change their own profile. Very exciting and moving.

Harry – Finding a new distribution partner whose on our wavelength and wants to take our products into a new sector.

What three bits of advice would you give budding innovators?

Brenda –1.  Know the political landscape and dare to think differently. 2. Engage a buddy who is emotionally distanced from your innovation and will act as a critical friend. 3. Persistence, knowing what difference you want to make will help when you get set-backs – ours was develop a non-stigmatising intervention to reach young people who lacked resilience, reduce costs of continual medication and reduce exclusion.

Harry – 1. Be extremely clear on your target market or sector. 2. Understand their challenges and how you can help.  3. Try to genuinely help them, not just ‘sell to them’.  If you help them, they will value you.

If you are a healthcare innovator looking for business development support and tools, do get in touch with us at the West of England AHSN. We can help. You can visit our Innovation Exchange for expert advice, information about funding opportunities and to make contact with our team to access support.

The future of healthcare: turning challenges into opportunities through powerful partnership working

In the first of our blogs about our pioneering Future Challenges programme, project leads Urszula Kapoulas and Rosie Brown share their passion for the programme’s cross-sector partnership working and its potential to deliver positive change.

The Future Challenges programme – what’s it all about?

The Future Challenges is a ground-breaking West of England AHSN-designed programme that connects healthcare innovators with the local healthcare system and other system-wide stakeholders, in order to trial innovations that address locally identified health and care challenges.

Projects within the programme are funded by us for 12 months and trialled and evaluated over the course of a full year (for optimum data capture), with the aim of supporting wider adoption and spread of the most promising innovations.

It is very exciting because of its huge potential to identify solutions that could improve health outcomes for individuals. But also because the process itself is so innovative: innovative in its end-to-end challenge and solution matching process, and innovative because the project partners themselves (cross sector) co-produce the project plan and the delivery mechanism – and gather the data and evidence in order to measure the project’s impact.

For us to facilitate this process – and to be able to provide such a comprehensive programme of support for our innovators, our member NHS providers and commissioners, and the wider system partners, (for example, local authorities, the education sector and independent evaluators) – is both rewarding and fascinating.

In brief, how does it work?

There are fundamentally four key stages to The Future Challenges programme: identifying the unmet healthcare need, identifying a potential solution, partnering the innovator with a ‘host’ organisation for trial, and delivery and evaluation of the project.

What are the current projects running?

By collaborating with our health and social care partners, we were able to identify two key challenge areas / themes for our first set of projects: 1). Young People and Mental Health Resilience and 2). Keeping Healthy at Home. Each has two core projects running under them:

1. Young People and Mental Health Resilience

MiHUB  – in partnership with ProReal, Wiltshire Council, Bath and North East Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire CCG and Royal Wootten Bassett Academy

SmartGym Gloucestershire – in partnership with Rugged Interactive, Gloucestershire Health & Care NHS Foundation Trust, the Anna Freud National Centre for Children for Children & Families and Newent Community School and Sixth Form Centre

2. Keeping Healthy at Home

Replenish-ME – in partnership with KiActiv, Bath Centre for Fatigue Services and Royal United Hospitals Bath NHS Foundation Trust

Moving to Better Health – in partnership with KiActiv, Sirona Health and Care

There is also a smaller COVID-19 response pilot – Keeping Active During COVID-19 – that is being delivered under the same programme of work, in partnership with Wiltshire Health and Care.

How are they going so far?

The programme is so exciting and is full of strengths and opportunities.

One of the main benefits we’ve found is how it’s broken down the traditional silos and barriers so often experienced by those keen to try out an new innovation. By bringing our health and social care partners and industry innovators together, and providing funding and project management support, the programme is providing the opportunity to truly embrace innovative solutions and cross sector partnerships in a low-risk way.

Through it, we’re also all gaining a much better understanding of the methods to facilitate successful adoption and spread of innovations across the region – and by supporting the highest level of partnership innovation across our local health ecosystem, we’re creating the opportunity to generate evidence to support this.

It’s been so rewarding to piece together a programme that reflects our years’ of experience and expertise in providing bespoke support for businesses and in engaging with our members – and to be part of a process that could significantly improve health outcomes for patients and the public is incredible.

What are the key successes to date?

While it’s still early days and we are yet to evaluate the products, a major success to date has been the strengthening of the relationships between the different partners involved in each of the projects – all of whom have been amazing. The way the programme is designed means that this was always going to encourage strong partnerships to form, but the global pandemic has truly tested us, and the relationships have gone from strength to strength.

Our AHSN is uniquely positioned to support this type of multi-partner initiative and we are proud to be a part of it. Through this work, we are able to support the commissioning goals of NHS England and the Office of Life Sciences by speeding up innovation in order to deliver better health and, potentially, greater wealth, for the region.

What has been the toughest obstacle?

It is safe to say that we did not plan for a global pandemic in our project risk assessment, so COVID-19 has presented a huge challenge in terms of delivery! The Keeping Healthy at Home projects were affected by the sudden strain on clinical resources and a constantly changing landscape, as services had to be re-designed overnight.

The Young People and Mental Health Resilience projects have been running in schools, and so these have faced all sorts of challenges and complications new to all of us. It is a huge credit to our resilient project partners; in particular, the participating schools – Newent Community School in Gloucestershire and the Royal Wootton Bassett Academy in Wiltshire – that we have been able to pivot the projects. They have been absolutely incredible in looking after their students, adjusting to the constantly shifting national guidelines and keeping going with a positive, ‘let’s try this’ outlook.  We are so proud of their continued efforts to deliver* during these most challenging of times.

What’s your message to budding healthcare innovators?

The West of England AHSN is here to help you! If you need business development support and tools, expert advice, or information about funding opportunities, do visit our Innovation Exchange. Here you will be able to access support and make contact with our Business Development team to discuss how we help you to move your innovation forward.

You never know, perhaps your innovation could be the answer to the next Future Challenge!

*All projects under The Future Challenges programme are currently in the delivery and data collection phase.

Urszula Kapoulas is a Senior Project Manager within the Innovation & Growth team here at the West of England AHSN. Her role focuses on developing new partnerships, and engagement methods between the local health community and innovators, in order to articulate and respond to the clinical priorities of the region. Examples of this work include the Future Challenges programme and Create Open Health.

 

Rosie Brown is a Project Manager also within the Innovation & Growth team. Her role is to work with innovators and help them to navigate the NHS. She is involved in the delivery of a few different areas of work that aim to do this, including our Health Innovation Programme, individual business development support and the Future Challenges programme.

 

Meet the innovator

Carey McClellan is a West of England AHSN innovator and Founder/CEO of getUBetter – a digital self-management platform for all common musculoskeletal injuries and conditions.  Here, he talks about how the West of England AHSN helped him with early ownership of his idea and what our Health Innovation Programme (HIP) taught him about business strategy and planning.

The innovation

getUBetter is an evidence-based, CE marked, digital self-management platform for all common musculoskeletal (MSK) injuries and conditions.  Our aim is to provide true local self-management support, helping patients to trust their recovery and have the confidence to use less healthcare resource.

We help organisations, such as Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCG’s), to provide a digital first approach for their MSK pathways.  Each element of the pathway is configured to the local health system and delivered to their population.

The early days / challenge

I’m a physiotherapist by trade and have worked as a clinician for 20 years. During my early clinical work, and PHD in health economics, I concluded that there was a way to develop solutions for patients that would enable them to self-manage their injuries and conditions – and which could create economic benefit to the NHS.

It became clear to me that digital health technology for musculoskeletal injuries and conditions focused on specific silos of care which did not solve the problem, created inefficiencies and was not in the patient’s best interest. I realised that there was a need for good effective self-management technology to support the health system and I could see where there was a gap. I could see that it was possible to develop a whole pathway solution, enabling organizations to deliver a digital first approach to MSK care whilst avoiding silos and preventing over treatment.

Working with the West of England AHSN

My initial entry into the Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) was about seven years ago in 2013, very early on in my innovation journey. I was supported locally by the West of England AHSN to get early ownership of the content and ideas I had – the intellectual property. Once I had that, I set about building the technology for the platform, and three years later, I had come up with a back pain version of it – Version 1.0.

It was at this point we applied for a place on the West of England’s Health Innovation Programme (HIP).  It provided a good introduction to business and operating in the NHS.  It supported us to improve ideas and our business case and provided insight to improve strategy. It started a thought process that ultimately lead us to pivot our business model to be more NHS focused and integrated.

First contract(s)

In 2017, we were approached by a clinician in Wandsworth, London, whose main challenge was a need to reduce the over treatment of patients at Physiotherapy. He had seen our app and could see how it could fit into their digital first solution for back pain.

We worked through how getUBetter could support and develop their pathway, including the stratification of patients to identify need – which enabled us to target the 30% of referrals that we knew should be self-managing.

We then worked with Battersea Healthcare, St Georges and Wandsworth CCG to integrate into primary care across the whole population of Wandsworth, into all 38 GP practises, and configure ourselves to the local pathway.

Now we are deploying more widely across the South West London area, where there are 200 GP Practices.

Now and next

Today, we have a platform that provides self-management for all MSK conditions – and we are 10 months into a 12-month contract with NHS England, to deliver integrated, digital self-management primary care. We can also provide interoperability of medical notes, so we can let GP’s know how their patients are.

We continue to work with the West of England AHSN, which has supported us throughout our innovation journey; connecting us with appropriate organisations, helping us to write bids for funding. It is with their support that we have now moved into a very different phase, working on deployment and scale rather than development, which is very exciting – we have developed digital solutions for deployment of integration via a digital portal.

We are now also working on a National Insitute of Health Research (NIHR) application, scaling significantly into new NHS regions, and we are one of five DHT companies outside of London (globally) to be accepted on the London Digital Health Acceleration Cohort 5.

COVID-19

Covid has created some interesting opportunities. The market has matured overnight, in the sense that the health services are turning to digital solutions. getUBetter has been very well placed: we’re one of the few companies that provides integrated digital self-management for common MSK conditions, that can be deployed quickly and scaled across large NHS organisations.

 What I love about my work

Seeing your idea and technology being used by organisations, clinicians and patients is incredibly rewarding.  Knowing you are making a difference whilst meeting amazing people.

Words of advice for budding innovators

Getting evidence-based technology adopted by the NHS is hard. Proving it in one geographical area does not mean it will automatically flow into the next – but the AHSN can help to connect you and provide regional exposure.

Your team is crucial to your success, and so let them do what they know best (they will often have better skills in areas than you). I’m part of a great team!

Finally, listen to others and never give up!

………………..

If you are a healthcare innovator looking for business development support and tools, do get in touch with us at the West of England AHSN. We can help. You can visit our Innovation Exchange for expert advice, information about funding opportunities and to make contact with our team to access support.

Meet the innovator

Tommy Parker is a West of England AHSN innovator and CEO of KiActiv® – a clinically proven digital therapy designed to improve the self-management of long-term health conditions. Here he reflects how support from the West of England AHSN helped him to navigate the health innovation eco-system, accelerate the spread of his technology and steer his strategy to success.

At the beginning of our journey into Digital Health people would say that trying to establish our innovation in the NHS would be the end of us. The common perception, even from those within the system, was that you would run out of money before you were able to see people benefit from your innovation. You might think this was hyperbole, but I’m sure for plenty of people it was the truth.

Since then there has been a dramatic shift in the understanding of, and approach to, innovation within healthcare. The NHS as a whole has undergone a significant cultural change, with digital services and the ability of patients to look after themselves being central to the future vision, and frameworks in place to support innovation to achieve these long-term goals.

Early work with the West of England AHSN:

In 2015, the West of England AHSN launched a ‘diabetes mobile health challenge’ (self-management in a digital world), which was developed jointly with Diabetes UK and the regional health and care community. The purpose of this challenge was to identify established digital solutions locally to support and promote self-management of both type 1 and 2 diabetes. KiActiv® was one of five successful services selected to pilot our innovation in the West of England region, and subsequently became a partner in the national Diabetes Digital Coach Test Bed, one of the seven wave one NHS Test Beds.

Working with the West of England Academic Health Science Network on these projects provided us with introductions to regional clinicians and commissioners, enabled us to evaluate our digital service in a real-world NHS environment, and raised our company profile through speaking opportunities at regional and national events.

The collaboration with the West of England AHSN and NHS Gloucestershire CCG has enabled us to continually refine the service offering and provided evidence to demonstrate efficacy and positive user experiences for people using their programme. As a result, KiActiv® Health was commissioned by NHS Gloucestershire CCG for self-care and prevention, and our impact was recognised as a finalist at the 2018 Health Service Journal Awards in the ‘patient digital participation’ category. Since then, we have continued to deliver measurable health benefit by supporting people with self-care using their personal everyday physical activity, and access to the service has been expanded to multiple other long-term conditions.

Keeping Healthy at Home:

Our experience with the West of England AHSN on both regional and national projects gave us first-hand knowledge of their role within the health innovation eco-system, and helped steer our strategy with respect to accelerating the spread of our technology. This included maintaining an awareness of AHSN programmes, knowing that they represented the challenges being faced locally, which were often mirrored nationally.

The Keeping Healthy at Home Future Challenge posed two key questions, which both resonated strongly with our vision of how an effective and sustainable healthcare system should look. These were:

  • “what if we had technology, knowledge and the confidence to manage our own condition as an expert?”
  • “what if we could improve health literacy and fully support self-management?”

At this point, it’s worth me explaining a little more about our innovation.

Put simply, we make peoples’ personal everyday physical activity a medicine for improving their health, managing long term conditions, and for rehabilitation. Our mentor-guided digital service empowers people to make sustainable behaviour change in the context of their health, capacity and environment, without the need to visit gyms or clinics. We expand the therapy window, from just one to two hours of exercise per week, to include all ~112 hours of a waking week, and provide a personalised understanding of the value of movement in our daily routines and how to find the opportunities to move more. Our approach has no barriers to age or mobility and it increases patient access to deliver measurable health benefit.

KiActiv® met the needs of the West of England AHSN’s Future Challenge programme and our application was successful. We were subsequently matched with organisations looking at two very different conditions, to demonstrate how we could improve health outcomes by integrating our solution into existing pathways. Replenish-ME focused on augmenting existing services for patients with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and evaluating our benefit to patients, whilst Moving to Better Health sought to provide a digital alternative to face-to-face pulmonary rehabilitation for those patients with COPD who were either unable or unwilling to take part in existing services.

COVID-19:

Both of these projects, and their evaluations, were designed prior to the impact of Covid-19. We had barely started before the pathways we were integrating with changed, as did the needs of the providers and most importantly the patients. However, it was clear that the vision of the Keeping Healthy at Home projects was now more important than ever and, as a technology-enabled service with remote mentor support, we were perfectly placed to continue delivering services to patients. It is a credit to all project partners, with the coordination of the West of England AHSN (and the unflappable project management team), that we were able to adapt to the changing needs and future outlook of services, and continue to support patients through a turbulent time for mental and physical health.

We had always held the belief that we could provide new, cost-effective, digital pathways for long-term condition management and rehabilitation services where physical activity is a key component, but none of us were expecting a global pandemic to be the trigger that accelerated our delivery of this vision. Alongside managing the impact of Covid-19 on our existing programmes, we knew that we would have to shout louder and work harder to make people aware of KiActiv® and our ability to support patients to self-care at home. This was reinforced every time we had an internal conversation about the potential impacts of physical inactivity during lockdown on the at-risk populations, and when witnessing the astonishing resilience of our users during this time. The adaptation to the Moving to Better Health project served as an example of what could be delivered digitally to provide a continuation of care, and with the West of England AHSN we were able to respond to local needs – rapidly setting up a small project in Wiltshire to support patients who no longer had access to face to face Pulmonary Rehabilitation, due to the lockdown.

Collaborating for a better health future:

Our work in response to Covid-19 has demonstrated a number of things to us both at a company level and also within the healthcare eco-system. We have proven our delivery model and remote-working to be robust in the face of the crisis, ensuring that the people who need our support are able to access it regardless of the situation. This emphasis on the patient is carried over to all of our interactions with healthcare partners, where there is a new sense of agility about how we approach designing a system which is fit for purpose and meets the changing need of everyone within it. This has further highlighted the importance of collaboration, with everyone pulling in the same direction for the same cause being crucial to success. Now, when we share how we’re working successfully in other areas or other conditions, people listen with a sense of shared responsibility, seeking to spread and scale the innovations having a measurable benefit to peoples’ health.

If, like Tommy, you are a healthcare innovator looking for business development support and tools, do get in touch with us at the West of England AHSN. We can help. You can visit our Innovation Exchange for expert advice, information about funding opportunities and to make contact with our team to access support.

COVID-19: adaptability and rapid response

In the fourth of our series looking at our learning from Covid-19, Alex Leach, Deputy Director of Innovation and Growth, reflects on the huge opportunities and risks that Covid has presented to innovators.

I have always liked this quote from Charles Darwin, who famously wrote in the Origin of Species, published in 1859,

“It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”

This quote has never been more true that in 2020. It has been an extraordinary year for everyone and no industry has been unaffected as the world continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, in the 25 years I have worked in healthcare, both within and alongside the NHS, I have never experienced anything like this.

The Medical Technology industry is, however, perhaps in a unique position. It has needed to respond to the urgent demands of its customers – both in helping detect the virus and in supplying frontline healthcare workers with the means to fight it. But it’s not been easy – companies have had to adapt to a changing economic and NHS landscape, in which supply chains, face-to-face sales interactions, and elective surgeries have all been disrupted. For those medical technology companies not already focused on epidemiology, virology, immunology or PPE, the pandemic has resulted in many challenges. This is a time of huge opportunity combined with significant risk.

At the West of England AHSN, we worked closely with the other AHSNs to collate a list of verified suppliers and companies who could rapidly support NHS members with their needs. In the early months of the pandemic, we saw an outstanding response from industry, supplying ventilators, diagnostic tests and PPE at a record pace. Companies able to respond at speed and scale benefited from large contracts agreed within a matter of days. Companies offered to rapidly repurpose and redesign existing products and solutions, production was ramped up and new ways of working were employed to support a healthcare system under real pressure. The normal slow speed of NHS procurement changed overnight and national procurement frameworks were rapidly put in place. Quality control has remained critical, and companies have needed to work hard to stand by regulatory guidelines to ensure speed did not compromise quality.

Greater collaboration across the system

The AHSN Network halted existing programmes in the early weeks of lockdown to focus on identifying suitable suppliers and products able to respond and support rapid adoption. And together with NHSX launched TechForce19, which sought to identify innovators who could support the elderly, vulnerable and self-isolating during COVID-19 to apply for government funding of up to £25,000 to test their solution.

In our AHSN, we supported applications and provided mentoring support to successful companies, including Aperito and Surecert.

Regional and national blended teams from multiple NHS agencies worked together, alongside industry to identify solutions and facilitate adoption. Funding opportunities were launched to support companies to fund rapid development of urgent solutions needed across the system.

Hurdles to overcome

However, we have observed that this was not a level playing field and not all companies were able to capitalise on such rapid demand. Increasing production takes time and investment and smaller companies often lack the cash flow or the infrastructure to respond at scale. The whole economy has been impacted by the pandemic, which has led to a slowdown or freeze from some investors. There was a surge in investment in medical technology related to COVID-19, but many investors are hesitant to fund medtech that is not directly related to the virus. Some investors are simply waiting to make their investment decisions until the current economic position becomes less labile.

In addition, many technologies that are used in more routine care have experienced a significant drop in usage and the appetite to trial and evaluate products, not seen as pertinent to the COVID-19 response, disappeared overnight. Clinics and surgeries were cancelled and “non-urgent” activities were halted overnight. Many companies have needed to put their sales teams on furlough and seen a substantial drop in income or some remain at risk of insolvency.

New ways to work

I have found it so inspiring to see how companies have been finding new ways to work. The move to home working and virtual meetings has resulted in the usual challenges, including the loss of those spontaneous serendipitous meetings that often create unexpected opportunities. On a large scale, though, we have seen how organisations can work more efficiently from a distance. Virtual meetings can now easily include attendees from across the globe, at short notice with no travelling required. The improvement in the functionality and accessibility of virtual tools allows for speedy data sharing, the development of highly functional virtual teams and created a whole raft of opportunities to deliver healthcare interventions remotely as well.

The pandemic has spurred changes to make the process of regulatory approval and validation more rapid and efficient. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) started working more closely with industry, academic partners and other healthcare organizations to speed up the pace of testing and trial processes. The overall cooperation between public-private partnerships across healthcare has been a welcome change during COVID-19, and it is hoped that this won’t change after a vaccine is developed for this virus.

Life science business owners have a vital role to play in the industry. There are more than 700 life sciences companies in the UK, all with a growing opportunity to explore existing unmet medical needs, short-term COVID-19 solutions, or longer-term challenges as they come to light.

I believe that while the healthcare industry has uphill battles ahead, medical devices, in particular, will continue to play a critical role in defeating COVID-19. By establishing a collaborative and flexible approach, the medical device industry will find continued success and be integral in the ability of the UK healthcare system to navigate this pandemic and continue to provide improvements in patient care in the years to come.

The severity and unknowns associated with COVID-19 have pushed medical technology companies in new ways, but it has proven to be an integral time for companies to examine how they fit into the medical community’s role when it comes to fighting the virus.

While there have certainly been challenges in the short-term, it’s important to find opportunities where they exist and understand the value in long-term developments, whether they do indeed have the potential to aid in the fight against COVID-19 now or whether they will prove to be vital across the wider system in the future.

The whole AHSN network is committed to continue to work to support the medical technology industry to better navigate the COVID storm and continue to thrive, thereby enhancing patient care and delivering long-term impacts.  My team at the West of England AHSN offers a variety of business development support tools and advice to help health tech innovators get their ideas off the ground, evidence the benefits and grow their business.  Innovators can visit our Innovation Exchange for expert advice, information about funding opportunities and to make contact with our team to access support. Our door is always open.

In the first of this blog series, our Chief Executive Natasha Swinscoe explores how healthcare is changing to manage Covid-19, and considers the factors that helped those on the front-line respond quickly and effectively. Read it here.

In the second of this blog series, Kevin Hunter, Associate Director for Patient Safety & Programme Delivery, discusses how working across systems with multiple partners and the blending of resources, irrespective of organisational boundaries, was a key element of the work we undertook with care homes. Read it here.

In the third of our series looking at our learning from COVID-19, Kay Haughton, Director of Transformation at West of England AHSN, explains how the AHSN used its existing expertise to help healthcare systems during the pandemic. Read it here.