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The recent announcement by Lord Darzi of a £100m health innovation initiative to be jointly funded by the Department of Health and the Wellcome Trust heralds a new dimension to accelerate the delivery of innovative technologies into the NHS, says Dr Maire Smith

The NHS has sometimes been likened to a tanker – slow to get going and change direction, with none of the responsiveness of smaller vessels doing a similar job. Its passengers have little choice and are forced to travel the predetermined route because there is nothing else on offer.

And what of the crews of these tankers? They work tirelessly, but the ship’s colossal fuel consumption means it will fail to meet national carbon emission standards and there is no money left for new features. And all the while, the company’s board and customers are telling them the ship needs to become more responsive and change direction.

But just as the crews are about to jump ship or commit their bodies to the waves, another navy comes up with an answer – in the form of technology. This navy has equipped their tanker with high tech aerofoil sails that fly at 500 metres to capture the higher, and more reliable, winds. The result is a vessel that still uses traditional methods in certain conditions but, when the wind prevails, can now propel the ship more quickly, using half the previous fuel consumption.

So, are there parallels here for the NHS, and does technology answer some of the problems? Like the tanker, the NHS will continue with traditional propulsion that works well in certain conditions. But can the propulsion be improved by non-traditional methods? After all, an aerofoil is not new technology – it is the application to sea-going vessels that is innovative.

The National Innovation Centre was set up as part of the NHS Institute for Innovation & Improvement in 2005 to help manage both the flow of ideas from the NHS and the uptake of new technology into the NHS. A number of cross-governmental reports have encouraged aspects of this technology innovation agenda to put into practice good ideas from NHS staff and to hasten the adoption of new technology into the NHS. The common focus is always improvement to healthcare. The NIC (located within the NHS Institute) and the local innovation hubs can be viewed as lighthouses for innovators trying to navigate their routes through some of the complex shipping channels of the NHS.

In its first year of operation the NIC has developed a range of innovative web tools and provided access to expert advisors to import innovations from the NHS, industry and universities. The NIC is just one small part of the highly complex NHS innovation landscape in which a number of players, including the local NHS hub network, play a vital role in accelerating the technology innovation agenda.

The NHS innovation hubs support NHS trusts across England in commercialising technology innovations from NHS staff and protecting the intellectual property that rightly belongs to the NHS. The hubs broadly follow regional development agency geographic boundaries. The devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have also adopted this hub model.

Innovative ideas may come from any of the staff in the NHS. Recent examples include a possible new technique to reduce unsightly scarring following surgery, trauma or burns – with potential benefits to millions of people. Another hub helped a surgeon commercialise a novel application of an imaging technique for cancer diagnosis. Yet another helped develop a cervical cancer probe that gives an immediate answer with 90 per cent accuracy.

In this way, the hubs help to encourage the burgeoning culture of innovation and enterprise in the NHS. They stimulates local dynamism though partnerships with local companies and, more importantly, local ownership. The innovation hub covering the south west gave support in the early stages to help setup one of the first companies owned by an NHS trust. Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust launched Odstock Medical Ltd, a company that produces functional electronic stimulation devices. One of its first products, designed and developed by the trust’s medical physics department, is a ‘dropped foot stimulator’. The device has helped patients with a dropped foot, developed as a result of conditions such as stroke, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, Parkinson’s Disease and some spinal cord injuries, to walk faster and more easily. The device has helped change the lives of around 6,000 people to date and potentially hundreds of thousands globally.

Typically, the nine NHS innovation hubs are approached with over a thousand ideas each year. In the last financial year, the hubs filed 36 patents, agreed 54 deals and spun out three new companies.

Two recently added hubs bring the total complement to eleven. In 2006, a training hub, based at Imperial College and Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, was established. The training hub is highly focused on some key projects and helps the diffusion of technology associated with specialised priority training such as laparoscopic training, dissemination of training criteria for medical devices and patient safety.

And in September 2007, the final hub in our programme, an adoption hub, was set up in Manchester, to examine factors that will increase the ‘pull’ of healthcare technology into the NHS and to carry out pilot projects with frontline NHS staff.

‘Think nationally and interpret locally’ is the powerful maxim of the NHS Innovations network that necessitates an interdependent and integrated approach to problem solving on the NHS landscape.

The patient, of course, is central to this innovation agenda. The government’s commitment to the idea that one size in healthcare does not fit all, will inevitably demand more flexibility in the provision of services and the ensuing technology they will demand. If GPs are to work from non-traditional locations, they will need improved IT solutions. And, as foundation trusts and commissioners are all too aware, patients will increasingly take into account the technology component in service provision when choosing their providers. Additionally, in productivity terms, technology can often reduce overall treatment costs.

21st century medicine presents a challenging environment, and the recent announcement by Lord Darzi of a £100m health innovation initiative, to be jointly funded by the Department of Health and the Wellcome Trust, heralds a new dimension to accelerate the delivery of innovative technologies into the NHS.

Dr Maire Smith is executive director, Technology and Product Innovation at the National Innovation Centre NHS Institute for Innovation and Improvement

“The NIC and the local innovation hubs can be viewed as lighthouses for innovators trying to navigate their routes through some of the complex shipping channels of the NHS”

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editor's comment

25/09/2017A hotbed of innovation

This edition of NHE comes hot on the heels of this year’s NHS Expo which, once again, proved to be a huge success at Manchester Central. A number of announcements were made during the event, with the health secretary naming the second wave of NHS digital pioneers, or ‘fast followers’, which follow the initial global digital exemplars who were revealed at the same show 12 months earlier.  Jeremy Hunt also stated that by the end of 2018 – the 70th birthday... read more >