Startups partnering with the NHS: innovation in healthcare

| Thomas Sheils

Successive governments have sought to improve how the NHS, a large public organisation, can learn from and tap into private sector innovation. With the UK’s population slowly growing older, innovation is seen as a vital means of maintaining health spending within acceptable limits. NHS management are aware of this and launched the NHS Innovation Accelerator in early 2015. In 2017, as the NHS approached its 70th birthday, Simon Stevens, NHS CEO, said it was time to unleash the full power of innovation to transform patient care. A new scheme known as “Innovation and Technology Payment” was launched in 2018 to help diffuse new technologies across the NHS’ mammoth structure. Much of these innovations will be international, but the UK’s startup scene continues to be a source of homegrown technology. In this post, we analyse the innovative startups partnering with the NHS to improve healthcare delivery. 

Perhaps the best-known startup partnership has come from babylon, the UK’s best funded healthtech startup, which recently became the UK’s only healthtech unicorn. babylon’s partnership came in the form of “GP at Hand”, whereby NHS GPs could be reached via the babylon video call technology portal. This service has been running since 2016. 

startups partnering with the NHS

However, this NHS/startup partnership has suffered from controversies and heightened media scrutiny. GP at Hand required patients to register to a surgery in Fulham; this resulted in a huge influx of patients registering in the Hammersmith & Fulham Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), despite not living there. This CCG had to cover the full cost of these new patients, leading to a deficit of £10m. Whilst this deficit has been covered by other CCGs, it highlights the issues in partnering with the NHS, which has a set administrative structure that cannot easily be altered. 

Other controversies relating to GP at Hand have included claims of cherry-picking more valuable patients, and a less-than-accurate AI chatbot. A full outline of babylon’s negative media attention can be read here. However, the basic premise of babylon’s use case should be an attractive one: enable patients hop on a video call with a GP to discuss the initial symptoms, instead of travelling to a GP surgery and waiting for an appointment. This clearly has the potential to save a lot of time and money across the NHS; it’s just a case of fitting it in within the sprawling bureaucracy. 

Startups partnering with the NHS: the Innovation Accelerator

Recognising the potential benefits for technological innovation in healthcare, the NHS board founded the NHS Innovation Accelerator in 2015. This accelerator supports companies that the accelerator’s board think could provide benefits to public healthcare provision, via the diffusion of new technologies across the NHS structure. The best funded of these is Congenica, a startup which has developed software tools to help improve the diagnosis of genetic diseases, with the view of advancing genomic medicine. This is an emerging medical discipline that involves using genomic information about an individual as part of their clinical care (e.g. for diagnostic or therapeutic decision-making). 

After attending the NHS Innovation Accelerator Congenica’s technology platform SapientiaTM was selected by Genomics England as the main diagnostic tool to be used by the NHS’ Genomic Medicine Service. Genomics England is a government-owned enterprise, founded in 2013 by the Department of Health and Social Care to run the 100,000 Genomes Project. This project is looking to sequence the full genomes of 100,000 NHS patients who have rare diseases. 

DNA sequencing

The idea here is that once you have sequenced the genomes of so many people with a specific genetic disease, you can easily identify common variants which cause the physical problem. As a result, companies can use the database to develop new personalised treatments. This is also being applied to oncology, helping to determine whether certain cancers have a genetic root. 

Sapientia  is a software platform designed to improve how genetic data is interpreted, allowing for faster identification of anomalies and potential defects.

The next best funded startup from the NHS Innovation Accelerator is Lantum. Founded by a former McKinsey business analyst who had joined the NHS as a strategy consultant, Lantum is a software platform designed to increase the efficiency and cost effectiveness of staffing management within the NHS. The NHS employs 150,000 doctors, alongside a significant cohort of expensive “locum” doctors, or flexible doctors that fill in for other doctors that are temporarily unable to work. 

Lantum offers a cloud-based platform where healthcare providers can advertise shifts for their own clinical staff to book at any time via most devices. The tool integrates with clinical staff calendars to match available clinicians with open shifts. The smartphone app for clinical staff allows them to cover shifts whilst on the go. 

Ultimately, Lantum’s software helps to reduce some of the £3.5 billion spent annually by the NHS on doctor recruitment agencies. So far, it has been adopted by 40 GP Federations across the UK. 

Another NHS Innovation Accelerator graduate aims to put greater power in the hands of patients. Patients Know Best (PKB) is a startup that has partnered with the NHS to develop a software platform that links with healthcare provider’s IT to create a full, cloud-based medical record for each patient. For anyone who has tried to obtain a copy of their full medical record, this is something of a godsend. A web-based database of medical records should really already be ubiquitous in the modern digitised world. Those with access to PKB can remind themselves easily of treatment specifics, and can share the information with different medical teams and carers. However, PKB is currently only used by a handful of UK healthcare providers. 

startups partnering with the NHS

Whilst less well-funded than other peers from the accelerator, DrDoctor provides a similar digitised service. Through their web-based platform, patients can manage, edit and cancel hospital bookings. Additional services include online communication tools, so that patients can easily chat with the relevant staff. 

Clearly, the UK’s startup ecosystem, and specifically its healthtech sector, can provide a huge amount of value to the NHS, both in terms of increased cost efficiencies and in the provision of better healthcare. The NHS and executive seem well aware of this. It will be fascinating to see what new technology comes through the NHS’ forward-thinking Innovation Accelerator, and whether this can penetrate the health service’s bureaucratic structures. 

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