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Cover Story Tech

How to get hospitals interested in tech

New schemes and funding opportunities are removing risk for hospitals and paving the way for startups to elbow their way into the NHS.

25 Nov 2016

A combination of money for startups and incentives for hospitals to buy from them is hoped to be the push needed to unleash a torrent of new ideas into the UK health service.

Generating the most enthusiasm is a recently launched, so-called ‘technology tariff’, which promises hospitals they won’t risk their own budgets if they try out tech from a selection of new companies. NHS England has set aside budget to instead buy products and services from startups centrally, so that hospitals using them are automatically reimbursed in the same way that they are for, say, hip replacements or crutches.

A device that prevents ventilators causing pneumonia is one example. NHS doctor Peter Young created the attachment 17 years ago, but despite proving the device works, and can save the NHS £700 each time one is used, he says ‘only a handful of hospitals have used it’. He believes inclusion on the tariff will now allow him to break into many more hospitals.

Young adds: ‘Telling a struggling hospital that it has to pay for a piece of equipment up front, out of its own budget, in order to save the wider NHS money in the long run, means nothing to it.’

The idea of the tariff is to create a fast-tracking route, removing the hurdles tech and hardware companies face, despite what can often be obvious benefits to hospitals. The tariff currently acts as an extension to the NHS’s accelerator, which was launched in 2015, requiring those included to have gone through the programme first.

It’s caused consternation among some startups who argue the criteria will lead to a bias favouring companies which have already had some success, rather than help companies at earlier stages grow; particularly as the accelerator, in turn, focuses on ideas that are ready to scale up.

The NHS has, however, countered that this is simply the first step, stating ‘we are investigating how we can pull in innovation from a wide range of sources’. It hopes to eventually have hundreds of innovative products and digital services added to the tariff.

Other accelerators have also launched to give medical tech startups a nudge into the NHS.

In September of this year, Digital Health London, a collaboration between UCL, Imperial College and the Mayor of London, among others, launched its own accelerator. Over 80 early-stage startups and mid-sized businesses are set to pass through the 12-month programme over the next three years.

It promises to provide small companies with routes to clinicians, commissioners and economists, and most importantly, give startups the ability to test and prove their concepts by setting up trials within the NHS.

Other funding bodies for medtech startups include the NHS Small Business Research Initiative, which has so far provided £57m in funding to 160 tech startups.

Further encouragement was handed to startups in early 2016 when the Department of Health announced that £4.2bn will be made available for digital innovation, including £400m for new websites and apps.

But the prospects for a typical medical tech startup to get a piece of this pie remain unclear. Contracts worth over £109,000 are required to go out to tender, meaning a startup must navigate the complex process of admittance onto the government’s approved supplier list, which can take up to three years.

This story is taken from Courier Dec 2016/Jan 2017.