Dr Anas Nader, co-founder of Patchwork Health, discusses the crucial role UK healthtech startups are playing on the frontline of the NHS COVID-19 response
Since the first rumours of the COVID-19 outbreak filtered out of China towards the end of 2019, the UK’s burgeoning healthtech sector has been thrown into a race against time. Startup companies employing some of the brightest minds of our generation have been coding, designing and developing all manner of digital solutions.
Their goal? To arm the NHS against its toughest opponent to date – the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a cliche to say that the most extreme pressure produces the most exquisite diamonds, but we’ve seen some incredible leaps forward for technological solutions during this crisis.
The healthtech sector has achieved more in the past two months than what one might have reasonably expected to achieve in a full two years. The offerings that have emerged, many of which are being offered for free during the pandemic, could prove game-changing.
Why, and how, has this been possible?
In the Spring of 2019 it already seemed that the industry was moving at a frenetic pace. But just as the rest of the world adapts to a ‘new normal’, health innovators are finding themselves involved in an unprecedented ‘technological spring’. And much of this progress will have implications that last far beyond the pandemic.
Firstly, we’ve seen the boundaries between the public and private sectors fade in the name of battling an enemy which refuses to respect the distinction. A prime example is the effort to build a data platform for the NHS which can be used on an open-access basis by those responding to the crisis. We’ve seen Microsoft engineers turn their hand to processing NHS cloud data, Amazon web services providing the infrastructure to launch the response platform, and even Google tools being offered to help the government track hospital occupancy levels and A&E capacity. When these giants work together in order to create a product which is shared freely, the benefits multiply exponentially and are available for scaling tech companies to use for their own projects too.
Within the healthtech sector, we’ve also seen companies proactively working to reduce the burden of choice which is usually placed on NHS directors. Start-ups led by those with first-hand medical experience understand that there are many areas of healthcare which would benefit from a tech-led solution, but that managers risk being overwhelmed with the sheer volume of different ideas they are presented with. It seems obvious that rather than investing efforts in persuading managers to adopt a technological solution to a singular problem, responsible start-ups ought to band together and anticipate the NHS’s most pressing needs. They could then integrate their complementary services accordingly, and present them ready for immediate adoption.
This is a methodology which my own company, Patchwork Health, has been endeavoring to follow for some time now. At the start of this year, we understood that our offering – a virtual staffing platform which enables rapid recruitment and redeployment of trained clinicians – would not be a stand-alone solution to the NHS COVID-19 staffing crisis, owing to the onerous training which returning doctors must complete and the extra pressure placed on NHS staff administrative services. So we reached out to two other startups in the healthtech field: Medics.Academy, who provide online training programmes for newly-qualified doctors and those returning from retirement to work on the COVID-19 frontline, and Wagestream, who enable instant access to earnings for NHS workers and on-demand expense reimbursement for volunteers.
By knitting together solutions like this, under-pressure decision-makers in the NHS are able to streamline strategies and solve multiple problems at once. As innovators, the onus is on us to make the offer and onboarding of innovation an empowering experience, rather than a bureaucratic headache.
I’ve never seen a greater enthusiasm for the sharing of ideas, or such a readiness to collaborate to achieve a common goal as I have over the last 6 weeks. I believe this tearing down of arbitrary boundaries has engendered a blossoming of innovation. Once the pandemic is behind us, my greatest hope is that technology companies do not go back to their individualised way of working, and that private companies continue to innovate for the good of the public sector. We must retain this sense of common purpose and create an enduring legacy of innovation that serves the interests of us all.