Convened by Prof James Barlow of Imperial College and Dr Richard Broyd of Scale Space, COVID lessons for innovation in healthcare brought together venture capitalists, healthcare ventures, healthcare vendors and clinicians to discuss the prevalent innovation themes in the healthcare space during the COVID period.
The speed of digital transformation across all industries has spiked up in the past months. For the healthcare ecosystem, the acceleration of innovation in both the public and private sectors has been especially pronounced. Our discussions revealed four themes central to the increased rate of innovation: data and its applications; new modes of delivery; the growth of collaboration and a change in mindset.
Data and its applications
The role of data has been an integral part of the COVID-19 response across all sectors. In health and social care, COVID has accentuated the need for staff to be able to access and share real time patient data. Governments have turned to the private sector to help solve the data challenge.
Big tech’s ambition in healthcare is clear. Apple and Google provide two clear examples of it. Google has recognised the commercial benefits of predictive modelling for both population health management and commercial applications. And its bid to acquire Fitbit aims to use daily bio data, such as heartrate, to predict and prevent illness, including COVID.
Apple, meanwhile, is putting the Apple Watch at the core of its healthcare ambitions, using it to enter the electronic healthcare record (EHR) market. The ability to track individuals’ health and fitness, and map them to their health records, could help to solve the expensive population health challenges of the public sector by promoting a healthier lifestyle, and preventing disease.
New modes of delivery
The pandemic has accelerated the uptake of new methods of care. Venture funders reckon that COVID has led to a growth spurt in digital health usage that might otherwise have taken five years to achieve. For example, remote consultation platforms like Babylon, GP at Hand and AttendAnywhere have experienced even faster adoption throughout the UK. This matches NHS aspirations to move care out of formal settings such as GP surgeries or hospital clinics wherever possible.
But COVID might also be exacerbating the digital divide, by making critical healthcare services harder to access for those who are less digitally literate, typically lower income users. A challenge for the NHS will be to ensure it does not penalise this digitally isolated community.
Meanwhile, venture capital returns in diagnostics until now have lagged. But the pressure put on the UK government to boost testing capabilities has led to a surge in demand for quick diagnostic solutions on a mass scale. And this comes with a shift in mindset towards using diagnostics as a preventative measure, which could reduce overall healthcare costs.
Regulation will play a central role in the growth of this industry segment. Although safety and efficacy are fundamental concerns, relaxing stringent protocols for digital health, as the US FDA has done, will help to accelerate user adoption, improve patient outcomes and reduce healthcare costs.
Lessons in collaboration
Crisis triggers collaboration. For the most part, COVID has been recognised as a global phenomenon to be taken seriously, with multiple examples of governments, organisations and individuals casting aside self interest in search of a common good.
Within the NHS, previously siloed organisations are sharing their COVID learnings for the good of the people. And the rollout of Microsoft Teams has given the workforce the ability to communicate more easily across the country. Global collaboration has taken off, with examples such as 300 intensive care doctors and medical supplies from China arriving in Italy during their meteoric outbreak in March.
In the search for a vaccine, Oxford University’s approach shows the ability of an organisation to pivot towards solving a global issue, alongside government aid and community trial participation. The WHO’s declaration that a working vaccine must be made available to all is an example of the true need for global collaboration during the crisis and the importance of continued collaboration instead of a siloed race and a singular victor.
Early in the crisis, the demand for ventilators in the UK saw a massive, collective response to tackle the shortfall from diverse medical and non-medical firms. Regardless of the potential profits on offer, the speed with which engineering firms were able to collaborate with a common design in a highly regulated and specialised market was astounding.
Hackathons, meanwhile, bringing together scientists and entrepreneurs, have been a recurrent theme internationally during the COVID period. Already common in technology circles, their application to the pandemic depicts a shift away from traditional top down solution governance to a community led approach. And the diversity of thought might well provide the opportunity for contrarian solutions and frugal innovation, especially in countries with fewer financial resources.
A change in mindset
In formulating its response to the pandemic, the UK government has stressed the importance of following the science. In turn, this has prompted people to seek understanding of the science around the disease, and to take responsibility for their own wellbeing.
The growth in digital health reflects this shift in mindset, which makes innovation possible. A digital first approach to health and lifestyle issues has resulted in massive user uptake of mental health apps in the UK, as a way of dealing with the issues born of social isolation. Likewise, fitness offerings from the likes of Peloton and Apple have also reaped success in parallel with the government’s anti-obesity plan.
Over the past decade data sources have grown near exponentially and consumers have unprecedented access to scientific data. Might this innovation moment serve as an inflection point for personal accountability and provide a new opportunity for companies to access scientifically literate customers across the world?
As the old saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. Crises have given birth to some of the world’s largest and most innovative businesses. Their success comes down to two major factors: the rapid deployment of new technologies; and the ability to capitalise on a shifting consumer mindset.
Both of these are plain to see today. Rapid technological innovation across the healthcare sector; and a growing consumer desire to engage with healthcare products.
Maintaining the rate of progress, however, will be an important challenge to overcome once we emerge from the current crisis. New frameworks to regulate and facilitate ongoing change will be needed so that we can continue to improve the ecosystem well into the future.