Taking a Dragons’ Den approach to evaluating healthcare innovations

Office meeting room

02 / 11 / 2015


With doing more of the same unlikely to provide the step change needed in primary care, local health and healthcare, NHS Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group – already well-known for its innovative approaches – looked for new ways to discover new and better ways of working. 

To achieve this, the CCG turned to NHS innovation experts, TRUSTECH. The team created a tailor-made 'Dragons’ Den' programme to identify and evaluate the latest innovative healthcare solutions to hit the market. 

Oldham CCG is a member of NHS Clinical Commissioners, part of the NHS Confederation.

This case study is most relevant to:

  • Academic health science networks
  • Acute trusts
  • Ambulance trusts
  • Clinical commissioning groups
  • Community health services
  • Foundation trusts
  • Independent sector providers
  • Mental health providers
  • NHS trusts
  • Primary care providers

The challenge and the context

Fantastic ideas are being developed by entrepreneurs in the field of healthcare all the time –many stem from small or medium sized organisations, which unfortunately remain under the radar of commissioners. This is because it’s incredibly difficult for these companies to get their foot into the door of the NHS, and as a result, promising ideas and innovations can easily be overlooked.  

With the right mechanisms in place, the NHS can capture these ideas. This is where Oldham CCG’s 'Dragons’ Den' programme comes into action. It has given these companies a unique opportunity to compete for a funded evaluation of their innovations in an NHS setting.  

In turn, the initiative has allowed the CCG to open its doors to, and engage with, companies of any size that offer the potential to improve services to patients, the wider community, and the entire NHS.

Oldham CCG also considered the process of evaluating healthcare innovations – which is both complex, and time-consuming – and needed to ensure these challenges were not holding it back from innovating. The Dragons’ Den initiative offered the best and most effective solution to this problem.

What they did

Oldham CCG retained TRUSTECH to create, deliver and manage a tailor-made Dragons’ Den initiative. As TRUSTECH provides an unrivalled link between NHS and industry, Oldham was confident the organisation would help bring forward new ideas that would have otherwise been off our radar.

More than 80 medical technology companies answered the initial call for innovations, which exceeded anticipated response levels. Companies with technologies deemed to have the greatest potential made the shortlist, and were invited to a marketplace event to exhibit and demonstrate their products and services to an audience of NHS staff, executive directors, front line clinicians and patients.  

Standards were incredibly high, and the marketplace event revealed many cutting-edge ideas with the potential to improve patient care.

The CCG then selected those companies that demonstrated the potential to significantly impact healthcare within Oldham and the wider NHS, to progress to the next stage of the programme.  This included ground-breaking medical technology and related information technology.  

The successful applicants were invited to pitch their ideas to a panel of ‘dragons’, which included members of Oldham CCG’s management executive team, governing body members and other key stakeholders from the healthcare community.  

In a similar style to the TV show of the same name, the environment was nerve-wracking and tense. After the pitches, the ‘dragons’ – who followed strict judging criteria – fired questions to the applicants to objectively assess the benefits of each innovation, before voting.

It was fantastic to see such an impressive line-up, and priority was given to those innovations which were not then in use in Oldham and which met the CCG’s triple aims: to improve the health of the people in Oldham; to improve the care they receive and their experience of it; and to deliver the best value for money by using resources effectively.

Results and benefits

Dynamic programmes like this are instrumental in helping CCGs adopt a more innovative culture, and identify fresh ideas. Oldham CCG believes it has set the benchmark for best practice with this initiative, and is happy to share its experiences to aid further progress across the NHS.  

An invaluable aspect of the marketplace event was the ability to obtain a comparison of technologies which touch different pathways. The ‘dragons’, patients and staff involved in this stage provided real-time feedback on the technologies in terms of viability and the impact they could potentially have on Oldham and our patients. 

Of course, the marketplace event didn’t just benefit Oldham. For the companies attending and presenting, it was an opportunity to gain a unique and invaluable insight into the complexity of a CCG and the issues it faces. Ultimately it facilitated improved relations and has aided progress across the healthcare service – something which is imperative to future success.

It also encourages an innovative spirit. One of the reasons this project is so exciting for everyone involved is that the technologies or services selected for evaluation through this new approach have the potential to significantly benefit healthcare delivery, not just within Oldham, but the wider NHS. Potentially, the impact is vast.

Subject to due diligence, the candidates who successfully convinced the ‘dragons’ have been offered a funded evaluation of their innovations in relevant patient cohort environments.

From smart medication that removes the need for injections, and patient monitoring solutions, to technology that assists with falls and fracture prevention, they all exhibit significant potential to improve health and patient experience, and deliver value for money, as well as reducing the burden on the healthcare system.  

The six innovations include:

  • hip protection
  • smart medication
  • patient monitoring solutions
  • medication monitoring technology
  • automated patient records
  • diabetes management technology.
The outcomes to date are better than envisaged, so the CCG is hoping for comparable results during the evaluation phase, which may take nine months or more.  The results of this stage will, subject to procurement rules, determine whether the CCG commissions the innovations that won over the ‘dragons’ in the den.

Overcoming obstacles

The CCG reports no major obstacles. To enable ‘buy in’, it included all stakeholders, especially patient and community groups. It also retained TRUSTECH, who have kept Oldham CCG objectively focused and have managed the programme – and will continue to do so.

Key learning

  1. Small and medium sized companies can provide a wealth of innovations.
  2. The approach is highly engaging. The programme attracts interest and attention from everybody.
  3. The potential for a project of this scale is significant: not only can the Dragons’ Den approach provide opportunities for CCGs to take advantage of what’s on offer, it can also bring change for the better.
  4.  Include all relevant members of your CCG and community – they all have a stake.

Takeaway tips

  1. Partner with an innovation expert.  We worked with TRUSTECH and the insight, skills and experience their team provides is invaluable. It’s absolutely critical to the programme’s success.
  2. The scope of running a Dragons’ Den programme is that any CCG, or NHS organisation, across the country can use and adapt it to suit.
  3. Align with your strategic aims, and keep the objective in mind.
  4. Ensure all stakeholders understand what you are trying to achieve, and how that will affect them.

Want to find out more?

Please email Denis Gizzi, managing director of NHS Oldham Clinical Commissioning Group, at jan.fielding@nhs.net

You can also find out more in Denis's NHS Voices blog post: 'Healthcare entrepreneurs dare to enter the den'

Why Register?

Great reasons to register with NHS Confederation

  • Access exclusive resources 
    Access member-only resources and tailor member benefits and services
  • Personalise your website
    Select topics of interest for recommended content
  • Comment and recommend
    Rate and share content with colleagues
  • Never miss a thing
    Register now to keep your finger on the pulse of the NHS Confederation

Log In