10 practical tips for digital health startups from DigitalHealth.London

Last week we were privileged to have here at Health Foundry Dr James Somauroo, the Interim Programme Director, DigitalHealth.London Accelerator (yes one of the longest job titles in the sector!) for our April Lunch&Learn. James joined us to share his practical tips for digital health startups that want to work with the NHS. 

James has 5 years of clinical experience as a junior doctor and anaesthetist as well as numerous policy and leadership roles. He has also spent the last 7 months working with 31 of the UK’s leading digital health startups helping them access the NHS and scale - so he knows what he’s talking about!

Here are James’ top 10 tips for digital health startups:

1. Be clear about what problem you solve.

This is a crucial first step for any startup trying to sell to the NHS and sounds like common sense, but you would be surprised at how many digital health startups James sees that can’t articulate in a few words the exact problem they solve. 

2. Which policy document does your problem refer to?

It's common knowledge that NHS budgets across the country are under pressure. If your problem/solution is a ‘nice to have’ rather than a necessity, then you will struggle to get a foothold in the NHS supply chain. James suggested that one of the best ways of demonstrating this is by reading all the policy documents you can get hold of and seeing where your solution solves a policy problem. Especially one that has come with a recommendation as this will have funding attached to it.

Good starters for 10 are:

Five Year Forward View
General Practice Forward View
Accelerated Access Review

3. What and whose pain point does your solution solve?

Hopefully, you will have developed your startup out of a pain point that you experienced as a patient, carer or healthcare professional but regardless, James recommended that you be very clear on the exact pain point that you are solving and at what stage in the care pathway it occurs. 

Next figure whose pain point you are solving so you can target your partnership efforts. Is it a GP or does the practice manager have a bigger pain point (and potentially budget)? Do General Managers have this pain point or do the consultants? 

4. How do you solve it?

The next step from James is to focus on how you solve this problem. The danger here is that as startups we can get caught up in the technical aspects and features of our solution. Try to think from the perspective of the potential user and customer (they might be two different sets of people). Managers might be interested in costs, return on investment and integration with existing platforms. Nursing staff might be concerned about how a solution would fit into their workflow.

5. Do you have any evidence?

James acknowledged that this is a really hard one for digital health startups but it’s essential if you want to be taken seriously in the NHS. You don’t have to have done large randomised controlled trials to have an evidence base - any data or testimonials will work. 

Getting some sort of pilot or trial is a bit of a chicken and egg situation but there are a few ways that other companies have tried that have worked. Doing some work in the private sector or abroad first is a good way of getting an evidence base together and is looked upon favourably. 

The only way to get an NHS pilot or trial together is to make a relationship with someone who can be your champion. Let them co-develop the solution with you and they can be your way in to the NHS. James suggested getting the holy trinity of champions on board with your idea - a clinical champion, a management champion and an AHSN champion. (Academic Health Science Networks connect the NHS to academics, patients and the public.)

6. Look at Pathway to Innovation

If you're developing new medical devices or applications, Pathway to Innovation helps you identify where you are in your 'innovation journey'. It’s a free online tool that tells you what further work is required to move your innovation forward, and who might be able to give you support or funding. A super useful tool according to James.

7. Identify who is your customer?

You'll hopefully have a good idea of who your users are, but do you know who your customer is ie who will pay for your solution? Is it a GP surgery and if so, who holds the budget? If your solution is in secondary care, who in the Trust holds the budget for this? Do you need to approach General Managers or do you need to go higher up the chain to the CIO? Or perhaps the local CCG (clinical commissioning group) is the budget holder. Being clear on how the money flows will make the sales process easier.

8. Check your language

Many digital health startups are so focused on the technical aspects of their product that they forget to talk about the benefits of it. James recommended avoiding jargon on websites or any communications and instead focus on the problem you are solving and the benefits of your solution. A great example of this is one of the companies on the current DigitalHealth.London Accelerator programme, Perfect Ward. They asked their customers (nurse managers) what language they use. Hence their benefits page talks about things like CQC audit trail, "ward-to-board" assurance and quality. What language does your customer use?

9. Go to health events

You’re never going to meet that clinical champion sitting at a desk. James encourages all the companies in his portfolio to get out to digital health and healthcare events and meet as many people as possible. But don’t sell your product to people you meet, ask them for feedback and advice. Ask them who they think would benefit from your solution.

10. Collaborate with other companies

James said that the NHS is a network of care, so you need a network of solutions. Your solution might solve part of a problem for someone but if you can find other companies that are complementary and can solve more of the puzzle, you can approach managers and commissioners together with a more attractive proposition. (If you are interested in meeting other digital health startups with a view to collaboration, then come talk to us here at Health Foundry about membership.)

Thanks to James for sharing his wisdom!

NOTE: The DigitalHealth.London Accelerator is open for applications until 23:59 on Thursday 20th April 2017.