Making sense of a complex landscape | Piers Ricketts

Piers Ricketts

It’s not an easy road, but progress is being made to simplify the health innovation landscape, reflects Piers Ricketts, chief executive officer of Eastern Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) and vice-chair of the AHSN Network.

Over the last few months the AHSN Network has been preparing a review of the MedTech landscape. The MedTech sector comprises businesses developing, manufacturing and selling medical devices, supported by an extensive network of service and supply businesses. The sector sits within Life Sciences, alongside Bio Tech, but is less clearly defined. It is influenced by the regulation for medical devices and by the health economic considerations that impact on their adoption and diffusion in the NHS and other key customer groups.

The diversity of the MedTech sector has resulted in an innovation pathway which is less clearly defined than for, say, pharmaceuticals. However, the opportunities are enormous, driven by the convergence of technologies such as nanotechnology, robotics, machine learning and the internet of things. At the heart of our review document is a detailed description of the key stages underpinning each step of the MedTech Innovation pathway. We’ve also included some case studies of exciting UK companies who have developed world-beating technologies in, for example, robotic surgery, sensors to detect single molecules and resuscitation for new-born babies.

Our MedTech review has been published this week. It is the latest in a series of AHSN viewpoints, or Innovation National Networks, on key trends in innovation. It follows on from publications on economic growth and innovation and on artificial intelligence and will be followed by work on genomics. Many readers will have been frustrated that the adoption by the NHS even of apparently straight forward or small-scale innovative products is often a challenge. The aim of this aspect of AHSNs’ work is therefore to signpost the key trends in each area in the hope that we can contribute to a more flourishing market – both for our innovators and for the NHS and its staff and users.

It’s now coming up to a year since I became chief executive at Eastern AHSN, following a career as a management consultant working alongside the NHS and the wider public sector.

In this relatively short period since I joined, I’ve become increasingly optimistic about the prospects for the successful adoption of new technologies, products and services into the NHS. It seems to me that we’re at a potentially very fruitful intersection between supply and demand.

The supply is represented by cloud-based digital and IT solutions, new scientific advances and general technology convergence, while the demand comprises key workforce shortages, an older, often sicker population and increasing consumer expectations. 

There’s also an increasing and welcome pull from government. We have a Secretary of State who is an informed and enthusiastic promoter of technology (witness his thoughts on IT interoperability during one of his first major speeches after his appointment). 

We have welcomed major schemes to encourage the adoption of new products such as the Innovation and Technology Payment and the new Accelerated Access Collaborative. And the 15 AHSNs are approaching the end of this first year of our new licence period, in which we are being specifically contracted by our commissioners to implement these and other innovations. 

At the same time, many readers will have personal stories about how difficult it can be to do things differently. At Eastern AHSN we frequently hear from innovators that, despite the concentration of scientific talent here and the presence of a national market in the NHS, it is easier to market innovations in the USA and continental Europe than in the UK.

I presented last year at a conference sponsored by an inventor of a device that collects urine specimens more accurately and with less risk of contamination than traditional specimen jars. Their CEO was frustrated by the ease with which the NHS throws up challenges (procurement, inertia, “not invented here” syndrome) to even this relatively non-disruptive innovation, which has good economic statistics, MHRA registration and FDA approval. I’ve also attended a number of seminars with the pharmaceutical industry, whose leaders are frequently frustrated at how difficult it can be to replicate the success of a new (albeit approved) drug in a different region or hospital. 

As AHSNs we are privileged to work on a daily basis in many of the brightest and newest areas of health and care. But we are a relatively small part of an NHS workforce that is under more pressure than I have seen in my 15 years in healthcare. We will only be successful if we can consistently inspire the wider NHS to leverage our enthusiasm for the new, supported by the understanding that the adoption of these exciting technologies requires the principles of good change management.

In such a challenging environment, implementation requires small, practical steps at the start, enabled by inspiring leadership and a logical programme plan which takes account of local variation. We have a huge opportunity, but a perhaps uniquely challenging time in which to realise it.

Piers Ricketts is chief executive officer of Eastern Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) and vice-chair of the AHSN Network. Follow them on Twitter @piers_ricketts@TheEAHSN@AHSNNetwork. Read the AHSN Network's MedTech Landscape Review report here.

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