Locking in health gains post-COVID

Philippa Brice and Charlotte Moss

Following our successful webinar What lessons can be learnt from the accelerated adoption of technology and other innovations during COVID? Philippa Brice, External Affairs Director at the PHG Foundation reflects on our webinar and adds the need for responsive regulation to the list of conditions required to accelerate health innovation. The second piece from this week’s Health Insider comes from Charlotte Moss, Account Executive at MHP Health, who gives an overview of the key themes and conclusions from our recent webinar.

Dr Philippa Brice

External Affairs Director
PHG Foundation

Responsive regulation: how to accelerate health innovation

The recent MHP webinar on lessons from the accelerated adoption of technology during COVID illustrated perfectly a silver lining to the gloomy pandemic cloud: a real-life masterclass in fast-tracking technology adoption in health services. As NHS Providers CEO Chris Hopson observed, the pandemic has been an unquestionable catalyst for change, most notably with respect to NHS digital transformation; the combination of clear, focused objectives and a strong push to meet them have worked wonders.

He noted that elements of success also included a new flexibility to thinking and working, and trust between collaborators – a theme echoed by One HealthTech founder Maxine Mackintosh, who shared her own experiences of an Alan Turing Institute initiative to develop AI tools for data analysis to inform policy decisions, when willingness to both pool data and develop shared solutions across different NHS Trusts proved crucial.

Trust is a recurring theme when it comes to digital health delivery; not only co-operation between innovators, but also public trust in the use of these technologies, and the data that drives them. Sunday Times pharma, consumer and leisure correspondent Sabah Meddings noted that making proper use of the expertise of tech companies – for example, the current collaboration between the NHS, Google and Apple to develop a new contact tracing app – requires public trust. Since data in one form or another is the currency of most healthcare technologies, building transparency that reveals how data will be used, by whom, and for whose benefit is the way to go.

Of course, the other pillar of public trust is effective regulation. This has traditionally been seen as a barrier to swift delivery of health tools, but the MHRA has clearly demonstrated during the pandemic that it can in fact move at incredible speed to approve and, just as importantly, reject technologies. Approval of a new rapid manufacture Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) system for use in severely ill COVID-19 patients early in the pandemic took just ten days, a monumental achievement to rival the technological development itself.

Effective, speedy and responsive regulation is surely essential for rapid adoption of health tech in future, and this will necessitate investment to substantially expand regulatory capacity. Whilst not the sort of thing that politicians relish, since it lacks the appeal of ‘moonshot’ science funding, for example, this could deliver an incredible return on investment by underpinning public trust in high speed health innovation.

Having clearly demonstrated that rapid, collaborative development and implementation of technologies for health is feasible – a hurdle of imagination that has undoubtedly hampered past efforts at acceleration – the question is how far can this leap forward be sustained? This is no small matter, especially as the NHS faces fresh pressures to meet ongoing pandemic requirements alongside business as usual, and a backlog of health needs, to boot.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that where there is a strong enough will, there is definitely a way. This will needs to be demonstrated from above, in the form of strategic prioritisation and investment; whilst the way will be driven by people – a diversity of voices and actors to ensure that innovations are aimed at meeting real-world health service needs and using new ways of working to devise, test, refine and ultimately deliver solutions that will work across the whole system, and not just in silos.

The final and perhaps hardest lesson, as discussed in the webinar, is for health systems to learn how to fail. The NHS is understandably risk-averse, and this extends to innovation, where intensive scrutiny of public spending makes tolerance for failure low. Conversely, disruptive new ways of working and ‘failing fast’ approaches, when combined with a clear vision of what success looks like, are invaluable in driving innovation in other sectors. In the future, nurturing a culture that empowers people to take financial risks with new technology – effectively, developing ‘permission to fail’ attitudes, from government and NHS bodies through to the wider public – will be essential to accelerate health technology transformation.

Charlotte Moss

Account Executive
Engine MHP

What lessons can we learn from the accelerated adoption of health technology and innovation during COVID-19

Last week, MHP Health hosted a webinar addressing the lessons learned from the accelerated adoption of health technology during COVID-19.  Our Head of Health Innovation, Rachel Rowson, was joined by a fantastic panel of Chris Hopson (CEO of NHS Providers), Maxine Mackintosh (Researcher at The Alan Turing Institute and The Health Foundation, and Co-Founder of One HealthTech) and Sabah Meddings (Pharma Correspondent at the Sunday Times).

Health data emerged as a key theme, with the panellists noting there are not yet efficient processes to quickly disseminate COVID-19 test data in the UK to appropriate stakeholders.  Chris Hopson highlighted that local directors of public health rely on seeing data to notice hotspots, like Leicester.  However, many directors currently have insufficient visibility of data, which may hinder their ability to act effectively.

To realise the potential benefits of appropriate health data sharing, the panellists asserted that an informed debate around transparency is required, allowing the public to see that controls do exist over its usage.  Sabah Meddings drew attention to the need for the public to be acutely aware of which data specifically are being shared and to what extent this will be anonymised.  This is vital when private companies have commercial involvement in government data; in order to feel comfortable, the public must be able to understand the role these companies play, and at what stage in the data process.

While we are generally cautious of failure, COVID-19 has created a unified goal in the pursuit of innovation.  Previous aversions to risk have been disregarded in favour of a focus on potential solutions and facilitating great innovation in health.  Graceful failure and thorough post-mortems must also become more commonplace, as we need to know why certain things didn’t work in order to learn from them.

The pandemic has catalysed health advancements, often involving innovators from the NHS, industry and academia working together and sharing platforms.  Having witnessed the benefits that such collaboration can bring, it may be hard to ‘go back’ to old mindsets post-COVID-19.

While the benefits of accelerated health innovation due to the pandemic were discussed in much detail, the panellists also drew attention to a shift in tone as we gradually return to the new normal.  Huge insights have been driven by health data sharing in the past few months.  But what if you’re invisible in a data set or digitally excluded?  Maxine Mackintosh highlighted the importance of ensuring no one is left behind.  We are currently facing enormous questions about diversity – especially given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.  An intersectional approach to health innovation and data is of paramount importance.

With regard to mental health, inclusion and access was again a key point.  Mackintosh suggested a two-pronged approach, wherein benefits from health technology can still be realised alongside some in-person services, to ensure that no one underrepresented is digitally excluded.  In another nod to the wider determinants of health, panellists agreed that communication across various NHS services and levels is fundamental to understanding local priorities and creating a holistic picture of community health.

In recent months, we have seen a glimpse of what is possible through the accelerated adoption of health innovation.  But what’s next?  Amidst infinite options, how do we seize this moment to ensure clear, long-term benefits, with focussed strategy and adequate funding?  Health services will be under huge pressure as we emerge from this pandemic, with service backlogs and infection control to contend with.  Ensuring health innovation is sufficiently prioritised by governments, health systems, industry and others is crucial in order to capitalise on the momentum generated by COVID-19.