The pandemic highlighted the need for businesses and healthcare organisations to evolve and adapt their innovation. We are still not out of the woods as new variants and Covid rates fluctuate. The health innovation ecosystem is a vital component to maintain our health and economy. Organisations have been required to rethink and innovate to adapt how they operate, including development of new products, services and models of care.
The West Midlands has a thriving community of health innovators. Our ecosystem includes world-class universities and R&D facilities, NHS exemplar Trusts, and thousands of health/med tech businesses on our patch. What we have not been great at is shouting about our amazing talent, facilities, and world class organisations. During the pandemic we have had to prioritise innovation and unearthed ways to grow and, as a result we have better understood our key capabilities. Our strengths in innovation focus on four aspects of the development of a strong health technologies sector.
We call them the four Ds – Digital, Data, Diagnostics and Devices.
In the future, digital applications will allow patients the benefit of greater control over their own health. They will access faster treatment, make fewer trips to hospital, and experience more support in their own home. Support for treatment, support for managing long-term conditions, and support for living a healthier life. And a key advantage will be greater access to their own data. Health and social care staff will benefit, too. Their time will be freed up for giving more attention to patients with the most urgent and complex issues, they will avoid duplication, and they will be better able to share information in secure and collaborative ways.
In 2020, the Royal Wolverhampton NHS Trust and Babylon agreed a 10-year partnership to develop a new model of digital-first healthcare to improve care for the population of Wolverhampton. The partnership was first to launch the globally available COVID-19 care assistant. They launched the service, which leveraged Babylon technology and the Trust’s operational know-how, to ensure their population had access to the right advice and services at the right time. The new model envisages digital access to a wide range of services, including health assessments, symptom checking, consultations with doctors and nurses, real-time health information from wearable technology and connected apps, and rehabilitation after surgery. The implications go far beyond treatment for existing conditions – people can access information, advice and promptings to manage their health and prevent ill-health arising in the first place.
Babylon is a large British company. At the other end of the scale, our region is home to an expanding base of small companies with big ideas. Dignio is one example. A Norwegian business, Dignio set up a Birmingham base because of the support it received from regional organisations like the West Midlands Academic Health Science Network. The company’s ambition is to enable and empower individuals with long term conditions to self-manage their health. Facilitating safe remote care and behavioural change, Dignio’s Connected Care solution comprises software as a medical device and consists of a platform for healthcare professionals and a user-friendly patient app. The company is growing and expanding its presence in the UK.
Underpinning all the good developments locally in diagnostics, devices and digital is the existence of usable data. Whenever an entrepreneur has an idea for a new service or product, or an investor wants to know the prospects for an investment in a new proposition, access to data is essential. What is the incidence of a particular condition in the region? What do past clinical trials tell us about the need for a new treatment or device?
A great example of what our region has to offer in this space is PIONEER Health Data Research Hub. This is a major research database, ethically managed and completely secure, which links patient data at an individual level across community and hospital health care providers. The Hub can provide data access under license to NHS, academic, commercial, policy, and third sector organisations. PIONEER holds all data within a central repository, with a single Data Controller and over-arching ethics, meaning it can respond agilely to data requests, cutting data to requirements, increasing the opportunities for end users.
Rapid testing and diagnosis was a national priority when the pandemic took hold. The value of fast and accurate diagnoses is enormous and the leaps forward during COVID-19 times should now be locked in going forward. The Binding Site is very much an anchor business in the region’s fast-growing diagnostics business community. This company, founded by researchers at the University of Birmingham in the mid-80s, now leads the way in providing innovative diagnostic solutions to clinicians and laboratory staff to significantly improve the diagnosis and management of patients across a range of cancers and immune system disorders.
The West Midlands Health Technologies Cluster (WMHTC) has been asked by the West Midlands Combined Authority to lead a project to nurture smaller diagnostics businesses in the region. The initiative is called DIAGCOMM, effectively a “mini cluster” within the larger family of health tech businesses. The purpose of DIAGCOMM is to bring together businesses that are involved in diagnostics to identify common challenges and opportunities and enable timely access to relevant regional assets. It aims to provide a forum for diagnostics businesses, including their supply chain partners, to share ideas about collaboration and managing risk, leading to a stronger diagnostics presence in the region overall.
Manufacture of medical devices is a tremendous strength of our region, linking products and ideas for improvements in health technologies to the advanced manufacturing we are famous for. A lot of the innovation that was driven by our fight against the pandemic involved engineering solutions provided here. The national testing of the responses to the Government’s ventilator challenge was done here.
Salts Healthcare is one of the UK’s oldest, independent, family-run companies that has grown to become a highly successful international medical device manufacturer. Operating from headquarters in Birmingham, Salts has two divisions: Salts Stoma Care and Medilink. Stoma Care designs and manufactures stoma care devices and additional products while Medilink is a national network of 19 Dispensing Care Centres supplying and dispensing stoma care and continence products by all manufacturers.
Our businesses, institutes, and healthcare providers look set to form an ever-increasing presence in the health tech ecosystem of the West Midlands. When it comes to the four Ds, we have a lot to shout as we continue to go from strength to strength. Through funding from the West Midlands Innovation Programme WMHTC is helping to create a strong narrative of our region’s strengths in this sector, empowering organisations to share their story and shining the spotlight on rising stars and new and emerging technologies, to stimulate more investment and participation in this field full of potential.
Author, Emma Yeap