In Leeds, UK healthcare innovation gets a broad push

Scores of organisations in Leeds, which is also the home of the NHS Digital and NHSX, are playing a vital role in accelerating the use of digital technologies across the health sector.

healthcare technology / medical data
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The city of Leeds has long been a hub for digital technology, playing host to organisations that include NHS Digital and NHSX. As a result, the region has become a hotspot for innovation, especially when it comes to healthcare technology.

The Yorkshire and Humber Academic Health Science Network (ASHN) is one of 15 organisations in the UK set up by NHS England to help with the adoption and use of innovative tech in the health services. Its remit sees AHSN work with NHS stakeholders to uncover projects that can improve patient health and outcomes, reduce costs for the NHS, drive economic growth in the region, and even bridge the digital divide.

Healthcare technology innovation was one of the topics discussed at this year's Leeds Digital Festival.

At the festival, which ended last week, Sophie Bates, programme manager at ASHN, talked about what's needed to bring innovative technology into the healthcare sector. It's an effort that involves nurturing new ideas, making sure they line up with real-world health needs, offer business development advice and coordinating among the priorities of both local and national organizations.

"It generally takes about 17 years for some things go from being an idea to being common clinical practice, which is a really long time," Bates said. "So where we can help with accelerating that — that's really one of the aims that we have as an organisation.

“It could be anything from an individual GP practice right up to an integrated care system level and [we] will work with each of them to understand what their needs are and what their priorities are,” Bates said. “We have a really broad understanding of NHS needs and priorities, and that's not just at a local level but at a national level as well.”

Bates said her team can offer business development advice and gap analyses that may be missing from a company’s own research. And because ASHN works with so many organisations, it can provide insights about comparable products being developed elsewhere or already available.

Bates’ team offers impartial support to organisations that approach ASHN for help, whether that be assistance with funding applications or signposting to research organisations where companies are at the earliest stage of development.

Where companies have gone through their clinical evidence phase, ASHN can also help them find real-world validation, a vital step in proving an idea will work outside of clinical trials.

Partnerships are critical to success

When it comes to innovation in the health sector, partnerships are key. Alongside support from the NHS, ASHN works closely with a number of regional organisations, including Academic Health Partnership and Nexus at the University of Leeds. As a result, ASHN has been able to support of 2,500 companies, creating 600 jobs and leveraging £300 million in investment.

ASHN has also been running a digital accelerator programme for the past two years called Propel@YH. It's the Yorkshire and Humber’s first regional digital accelerator and provides a cohort of SMBs with in-depth master classes and a six-month programme to support company growth and increase market presence.

Tim East, digital navigator at the AHSN, said the programme relies on a number of partners, including Leeds City Council, Barclays Bank Eagle Labs, the University of Leed’s Nexus building, and Hill Dickinson, a legal organisation.

“Since the Propel@YH programme, [last year’s cohorts] have gone on to increase funding, increase investment within their organisations and undertake various projects for soft growth within the region,” East said.

Bridging the digital divide in healthcare

Developing an idea is just half the battle. Dr. Luan Linden-Phillips, innovation adoption specialist at Leeds Academic Health Partnership, said an entrepreneur might have a product or service ready to go, but it still needs to be rolled out in a healthcare setting to be successful.

Linden-Phillips said Leeds Academic Health Partnership and its partners last year found there were significant gaps across the city of Leeds when it came to rolling out new digital solutions. In particular, it discovered at least 116,000 families in Yorkshire and the Humber without access to a laptop, tablet, or desk computer. That digital barrier means many of the innovations ASHN supports might never reach the people who need them.

As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, Leeds Academic Health Partnership established a programme to give devices to people who are currently digital excluded. “We can't always guarantee we'll be able to get a set of new devices, so we're looking at utilising organisations’ devices when they come to replace them,” Linden-Phillips said. “Rather than [the devices] going into the great landfill in the sky, we will be taking them and wiping them clear, so there's no data breaches.”

Each device is sent to a third-party company that adapts the device to fit the needs of the recipient. (People with eyesight problems would get software that makes text more accessible, for example.) Leeds Academic Health Partnership is also working with mobile networks to provide digitally excluded users with Wi-Fi access or data plans.

“If you're a digital entrepreneur with a product, it can be really difficult because you want your products to end up with residents who can use them,” said Dr. Liz Mear, managing director at Leeds Academic Health Partnership. “In Leeds, we've got a programme called the 100% Digital Leeds and it aims to stop people being frightened of digital technologies.”

Through the programme, Mears said, users might be shown first how to book a holiday online and then taught to use other technologies such as a mobile apps. The goal is to show people how easy it could be to manage health conditions digitally, either via app-based monitoring tools or by being able to booking appointments online.

“We're here to improve lives. We want people to live longer, healthier lives. If you've got a long-term condition, we want you to be able to manage it — and we know that digital technologies can support that,” Mear said. “We all know how hard our health and care staff work and we want them to be able to be more efficient in their jobs and we know there are lots of digital products and services out there that can support that.”

Looking to the future

Recently, NHSX published a framework describing what success looks like in the health care system, outlining seven measures aimed predominantly at Integrated Care Systems (ICS) as a next step in continuing to digitise services and build on progress made during the pandemic.

The framework has been accompanied by proposals for managing the costs of digital transformation; that's an ongoing issue because the mismatch between local and national priorities can cause burdensome and duplicative bidding processes.

“For the forthcoming year, NHSX are bringing together existing funding pots into one national application process, called the Unified Tech Fund. The view is that from 2022-2023, we will see a move away from national funding programmes towards allocation to ICS for local technology spend,” Linden-Phillips said.

While the framework is aimed at ICS, digital innovations will be needed to underpin NHSX’s ambitions.

Another of the success metrics envisions using digital solutions to improve care by enhancing services for patients, ensuring they get the right care when they need it. Linden-Phillips said any innovations that address those goals will be of particular interest.

“I'm pleased to see a commitment towards coordination of care and the utilisation of the rich data sources that we have, particularly in the Leeds City region, to develop new technologies through collaboration with innovators and all of our partner organisations,” she said.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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