Despite this horrendous pandemic, something important is beginning. A health tech revolution.

For decades, the main talking points at a political level seem to circle on familiar ground. An insatiable demand for more funding for the NHS – and certainly from Labour, where they cry foul on anything that looks like working with the private sector concerning public health. The latter was particularly ironic, given New Labour’s engagement in Public-Private Partnerships and Public Finance Initiatives. It seems rather reasonable to most for hospital trusts to outsource certain parts of the operation, like catering and cleaning, as long as the point of care is free, standards are maintained, and it represents good value for money.

Despite the Conservatives pumping records amount of funding and having been the stewards of the NHS for most of its existence, the prevailing view is that health policy is traditionally a defensive portfolio – with Tories bracing for a relentless assault from the Opposition in every General Election. With COVID-19, it is a certainty that the next election will feature healthcare as a central debate. No one should underestimate the task involved in dealing with a completely novel virus and lessons will inevitably be learned, just as East Asian countries did during the SARS and MERS battles, but contrary to the Opposition Party’s howling earlier this year, thanks to the heroic action of health workers, the NHS has remained resilient and not overwhelmed. With the mobilisation of all parts of our medical, scientific, and private sector communities, within the space of weeks, we have a world-leading level of testing capacity and are at the forefront of vaccine discovery.

But we can do more and health tech is the key. It represents a vital component in ensuring the Conservatives are no longer defensive on this subject. Why? With the UK population ageing and therefore demand increasing, we must explore ways to boost productivity and efficiency. Tech transformation isn’t just a buzzword, it can and does make healthcare more assessable, effective, and boost patient and worker safety. From better sharing of information, to quicker remote appointments, new medical education tools and hyper accurate diagnostics, the potential is near limitless. The Tories have always been pro – tech, it chimes with our philosophy as problem solvers and it explains why the old Culture Department was recently upgraded to include the word ‘digital’ on it, with the majority of staff leading on that policy too now.  

We also are fortunate that we have the most forward-looking and modernising Health Secretary in memory. Matthew Hancock, appropriately the former Digital Secretary, has in just a couple of years, been fearless in driving reform, including digital reform, no small task given the scale and complexity of the NHS and Social Care behemoth, and that’s even before dealing with COVID-19. Matt gets the importance of this agenda and you can see it in spades already during the pandemic crisis. Most go unreported, with the media commentary forgetting that a lot of the essential tech isn’t flashy, such as with more responsive data dashboards or the tech backends to enable testing and PPE distribution to actually work. The recent creation of NHSX – the tech agency of the NHS, has enabled a concentrated hub of expertise to focus on this agenda.  

Upgrading and transforming our health service digitally is like navigating across an ocean storm. It requires constant adjustment and a relentless drive to get the course right and it needs to be tackled in all directions. The top leadership is clearly onboard but for true transformation, culture change needs to happen, and that comes from the grassroots too, including from new joiners into the medical field.

 Medical students, for example, arrive with bundles of energy, ideas and new perspectives as digital natives. While they rightly will be focused on passing the highly regulated curriculum of medical science, we should be careful not to crush their innovative thoughts. Many are naturally entrepreneurial, we know this already, given the explosion of enterprise societies across universities, including those with medical schools. When I ran the enterprise charity NACUE (The National Association of University and Entrepreneurs), I saw with my own eyes how incredibly fast innovation can be developed. These enterprise groupings were great because they mixed students from all subject areas, ideal for forming teams, with medical students working alongside computer scientists and business students to create new solutions. They drive a positive, inquisitive culture, challenging the status quo if processes don’t make sense. Credit should also go to enterprise educators within institutions that fund and encourage this, for example Tim Barnes who transformed UCL into a startup powerhouse, with many entrepreneurs coming from its medical schools and business programmes. If only medical students had more options during their formal studies too, such as a year out programme to assist with health tech startups. Any approach that helps breakdown the siloes between healthcare workers and innovators must be welcomed. 

 Alongside the talent pipeline, there are other ways to encourage the health tech startup growth. The NHS could further engage with it more, providing ‘sandbox’ opportunities, somewhat like the Canary Wharf based Start-up hub Level 39 where fintech is mixed with regulators to learn from each other and improve policies. Startups are, perhaps by necessity, able to engage with a wider audience to help educate on the art of what’s possible because they can focus on their niches, especially if they are consumer based. We also need platforms to allow policymakers and NHS managers to both present their major issues, perhaps through health hackathons and health care pitches and in return, they can also learn from these problem solvers who are less burdened from bureaucracy. The NHS has begun to explore some of these accelerator programmes, with a good example being the successful launch of ‘Techforce19’ in partnership with the GovTech Venture Capital Firm PUBLIC, which has seen 18 digital startups provide unique solutions in the social care sector. There were 1,600 applications in less than a fortnight, so clearly there is the appetite, we just need to provide more of these opportunities.

A combination of political will and sheer necessity has made digital transformation now seen as essential to help enhance the patient experience and keep the NHS institution sustainable. Despite all the challenges and tragedies, we have seen so far, let us ensure that it is this generation that will seize the moment and catalyse a new era for our health system. We can do this by raising the visibility of health tech amongst the general population and giving opportunities to the innovators. We would all benefit from for it.