More than money: the role of non-government funders in catalysing digital health

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By Oliver Smith, director of strategy and innovation, Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity


Digital technology has huge potential to improve the NHS. A point so obvious that it is almost platitudinous. But just because something is obvious doesn’t mean that it will happen. Too often in the NHS there is a lot of talk about the digital health opportunity, followed up by a disappointingly narrow set of recommendations, usually focused on central government action. Central government has an important role but its actions alone will be insufficient to seize the digital opportunity. I firmly believe that non-government funders have an important role to play because of the independence and agility that they can bring, and which are particularly prized in the digital world.

Over the last few months Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity has helped to fund an expert panel exploring how to tackle the barriers facing health tech SMEs wanting to work with the NHS. I sat on the panel and the discussions have been lively, constructive and honest. Yes, they have included some asks of NHS England and other central organisations, building on the work of the Accelerated Access Review. But overall, the resulting insight has been overwhelmingly practical and provides some great tips for SMEs and NHS organisations.

However, there is another set of actors who can also help, beyond the NHS, SMEs and central government. Non-government funders, such as the charity, have a vital role to play.

Clearly being able to provide funding is important. This is particularly true for new technologies where our funding helps to de-risk their testing for the NHS. However, it’s important to avoid the pitfall of funding pilots that go nowhere, a common problem identified by the panel. One way we manage this is to provide equity funding rather than grant funding. This creates the right incentive from the outset; to grow a business that provides a product or service that the NHS values. The Bright Ideas Fund that we jointly fund with Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust takes this approach for spin-out technologies from the trust.

So money is important but it’s not the only role that non-government funders can play in catalysing change, and perhaps not even the most important. Critically, non-government funders can help to create the right conditions for health tech SMEs and the NHS to work better together.

One of the most powerful of our intangible roles is to act as an honest broker. I heard a number of SME CEOs on the panel refer to the importance of securing support from the ‘holy trinity’ within NHS trusts – the medical director, finance director, and chief technology officer. Not only do funders often have good access to such individuals – we certainly do on our patch in Lambeth and Southwark – but having no product or service to sell ourselves helps to facilitate those initial conversations. We have helped Selfless – a tech start-up led by Dr Naeem Ahmed – to work with Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust to develop Propeller, a tool to allow the trust to crowdsource quality improvement ideas from its clinical staff.

Allied to acting as an honest broker, non-government funders can also hold events and provide access to expertise that facilitate the development of new contractual relationships. Traditional tech incubators do this reasonably well for SMEs, but I think that this model will struggle to gain traction in the NHS unless the NHS itself is drawn in. Healthcare requires the creation of relationships that are much deeper and more sophisticated than that of business to consumer, and so both SMEs and the NHS need to debate and develop together. The charity is exploring the potential for just such an incubator and I hope to be able to say more on this in the coming weeks.

So yes, it is obvious that digital technology has huge potential to transform how the NHS delivers care. However, it is also obvious that different parts of the NHS need to work better together to deliver integrated care, and has been for the last 20 years. To avoid 20 years of talking about the potential of digital technology we need to create the right conditions for change – with a bit of money to help along the way of course. Non-government funders have the independence and agility to catalyse the necessary changes – it is our duty to act.




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