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“Pathways to success” – what start-ups need to know about the NHS policy priorities

Any start-up looking to innovate within the health tech space needs to understand the wider context they operate in to succeed; it helps you segment your potential customers and improve how you communicate your value proposition. But wading through reams of policy documents, opinions and media stories is easier said than done, particularly when it’s likely to be just one of countless tasks your team needs to do.

To give you a head start, the Pfizer Healthcare Hub:London spoke to Gregory Rochelle, Policy Engagement Manager at Pfizer UK about the current policy priorities within the NHS, the organisation’s approach to digital and how you can accelerate your growth by understanding your customer’s needs:

“Anyone who is looking to scale innovation within the NHS must first do their due diligence in terms of the current NHS climate. The NHS is a huge, and at times, complex service provider, which has been serving the UK for nearly 70 years. It may look like one organisation from the outside with similar values, needs and challenges but it is far more complex than that. The NHS is made up of many organisations each with their own priorities to deliver services to their own users, from Public Health England to the smallest CCG. Far from being a barrier to entry, this creates real opportunities for entrepreneurs who take the time to understand how the NHS works and, critically, its aspirations.

The NHS operates in a climate of constant change. New procedures, media and political pressures, health scares and medicines all constantly force staff to revisit and re-evaluate the way the NHS works. This creates the perfect opportunity for an innovative company with a smart technology solution to make a real difference to patients’ lives.

This opportunity is amplified by the increasing demand placed upon NHS services and increased focus on maximising value. There is a growing realisation that technology can make a real difference to how NHSE operates – both by increasing health outcomes and reducing costs – but not the means to innovate at scale internally.

This climate means that the NHS in England has chosen to prioritise delivering improvement within relatively fixed budgets. Any new innovation that combines near term savings with a major patient benefit will be prioritised ahead of competitors, regardless of the claims made by the competition. It can be challenging to persuade decision makers to invest upfront for possible future savings.

Similarly, if a start-up has a solution which will clearly reduce avoidable harm it can leap frog competitors with harder to measure claims.

Hard evidence around your solution’s efficacy is vital and though proof of benefits in the real world is harder to come by, trials and beta programmes are considered. In the early stages, finding someone working in the NHS to help you focus your product development and collect the early evidence to make your case can also be a quicker way of building your bank of proof points. If you don’t know where to start, I’d suggest attending relevant conferences, emailing local clinicians and academics or reaching out to a local academic health science network (AHSN) or find a local health tech incubator programme.

Then there is the even more difficult task of getting an innovation adopted at pace and scale. The way the NHS in England is currently set up, with independent CCGs and Trusts, makes how you choose to market your innovation critical, you could spend hours trying to find a willing ear in each organisation and hope they have the remit to commission your innovation. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel - NHSE recognises the problem and has senior leaders working on how best to solve it. For now, start-ups need to build a compelling business case, grounded in the reality of STP plans, the Five year forward view and supported by advocates they have with NHS experience. Look out for opportunities to meet early adopter organisations through programs such as NHS Test Beds.

To help make the most of your resources, treat NHS organisations like any group of potential customers, segment them, look at the digital exemplars, the fast followers, the organisations building a reputation for managing change well and prioritise them. It’s these people who have the potential to become your advocates and can provide advice not only on fine tuning your technology, but also building a business case for its adoption.

Having said that, the NHS as a whole recognises the need to embrace the digital era and has determined that it will do so by setting up NHS Digital and Public Health digital departments. These departments should be a key port of call for any start-up looking to establish a more formal relationship with the NHS and over time will help establish the direction of travel for digital solutions within the NHS. Right now, the prevailing opinion from these departments and across the NHS is that the major benefit of technology will be in increasing patient self-care and reducing GP and A&E footfall.

Any innovation which can help with patient self-care, real world data collection, has interoperability and is, at worst, cost neutral will be at least considered carefully in the current climate. If you can realise these goals, then you have a chance of getting your innovation adopted.”

The Hub works with colleagues like Greg across Pfizer to help later stage digital health companies understand how to scale up successfully by understanding the needs of patients, providers and payers in constantly changing healthcare markets in the UK and further afield. Look out for our next call for innovations. 

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Investors Dr Vijay Barathan and Dr Gareth King have seen it all in the boardroom. From a two-hour pitch that made little sense to ridiculous valuations and claims. They’ve witnessed the good, the bad and the ugly.

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