Reshaping healthcare in the 21st century digital age

By Tim Ahrensbach and Sinead Mac Manus
Health Foundry Founding Team

From how we choose to travel or how we do our banking to what we watch on a lazy night in, “digital” has quickly become the modus operandus for how we organise our daily lives. Since the advent of the FitBit and apps like Endomondo, Clue and Sprout, consumers are taking their health and wellbeing into their own hands and demanding more from their healthcare providers. And yet, when it comes to how we engage with the health system at large, this process continues to be incredibly, and sometimes painfully, analogue. Witness, for instance, the 80% of British holiday makers who bought their last flight online compared with the mere 5.2 % of patients who use the internet to book a doctor’s appointment.

The challenges faced by the health service are many. An aging, as well as a rapidly rising, population, combined with rising levels of chronic ill health issues such as obesity and diabetes and increased need for mental health service are increasing demand on the NHS. The rising cost of treatment from new, exceptionally expensive treatments being made available is straining budgets. Combine all this with the challenge of a diverse public whose health and wellbeing depend on a wide range of factors which transcend the traditional healthcare system.

"Witness, for instance, the 80% of holiday makers who bought their last flight online compared with the mere 5.2 % of patients who use the internet to book a doctor’s appointment."

There is a clear need for change both in terms of improving the efficiency of current systems and the need to radically re-engineer care pathways so that organisations responsible for different parts of the patient journey can work more effectively together. This is where we think digital technology can help.

 

Amazing things are already happening

The massive potential for dealing with some of our current and future health challenges through digital technology - for instance, by streamlining processes, by using data to create a more holistic picture of a person’s health or by connecting people to health and wellbeing opportunities in their local area - is increasingly being recognised by entrepreneurs in- and outside the NHS. For example, DrDoctor is working with the Women’s Health service at St Thomas’s Hospital to provide an on-line appointment booking and amendment service, and Genera Systems Ltd, has developed a virtual pre-operative assessment tool that is reducing the rate of cancelled operations by up to 75%. Digital innovation is also happening within the NHS. For example, SH24 has developed an on-line, virtual sexual health service radically transforming the way in which sexual health services are provided to young people.

"The massive potential for dealing with some of our current and future health challenges through digital technology... is increasingly being recognised by entrepreneurs in- and outside the NHS."

 

The challenge at hand

The NHS can seem like a complex beast to navigate with many different players and stakeholders to engage with. Add to this the fact that many startups often fail to get feedback from health professionals and users leading to products that aren’t always fit for purpose. The NHS already makes extensive use of digital systems, however, has not benefited to the fullest extent possible from the new wave of 21st century digital health technologies. This is the opportunity set before us.

"The NHS already makes extensive use of digital systems, however has not benefited to the fullest extent possible from the new wave of 21st century digital health technologies"

An established catalyst for innovation in health, Guy’s and St. Thomas’ Charity wanted to address this issue by setting up the Health Foundry, an incubator space located close to, but still outside, St. Thomas’ Hospital, where start-ups can be supported to grow their fledgling ventures, while getting feedback on their products from clinicians just across the street. A well-connected Partnership Manager will help the start-ups navigate the NHS and make introductions to key decision-makers within the healthcare system.

 

Navigating an increasingly complex reality

Of course nothing is as simple as it first seems, and during the initial phase of setting up the Health Foundry we spoke to a wide range of people and organisations involved in the health sector who helped us to understand the added complexities of the system. We learned:

  • Clinicians aren’t the only ones who understand health needs, just as start-ups aren’t the only ones who understand the potential digital solutions.

  • Self-management of conditions is becoming more important as people increasingly want to understand and take control of their own health and wellbeing.

  • Health and wellbeing should not be limited to the absence of sickness and requires us to look more holistically at the different aspects that make up a person’s life, like housing and employment.

  • Digital solutions are not just about creating new products, but also about looking at existing assets and how these can be leveraged in innovative ways.

 

Our mission

This lead us to revise the long term goal of what we want to achieve with the Health Foundry, going from a bilateral relationship between clinicians as the representatives of the “need” (and ultimately the buyers of digital products) and the start-ups as providers of the digital solutions (see stage 2 in the diagram), to a much more complex multi-actor reality where the start-ups and clinicians are part of a larger collective of agents who can work together to understand and solve current and future health challenges through digital technology (see stage 3 in the diagram).

You can read more on the new Health Foundry website, but at its core our mission is to improve health and wellbeing by bringing together a wide range of people, start-ups and organisations and supporting them to create scalable digital health solutions.

The Health Foundry will open in August 2016 and grow and develop organically with the community it hosts. This is an open invitation to help us shape what the Health Foundry will look like by joining the conversation on- or offline, by co-hosting an event about digital health with us, by joining as a member or by getting involved in one of our Open Solutions Lab.

Come join us.