Innovation in the medical space

Louise Fenn 12th October 2021

The medical space is often seen as underfunded, overworked, fragmented and in need of some general TLC. Alongside this, the average age of the UK is increasing, adding pressure to the sector and highlighting the UK’s need for some serious MedTech innovation.

Thankfully, over the past few year years, we’ve started to see some serious investment into MedTech. Tools that could help our doctors, nurses, anaesthetists… you name it, continue to provide high-quality care at an accelerated rate – perhaps also alleviating some of the pressure on the NHS. But how can this tech be implemented on such a scale, ensuring meaningful and lasting changes?

Today, we take a look at why investing in MedTech is so important, touching on global health and the outdated methods of the NHS, some examples of amazing innovation, and the challenges the sector is facing in creating and implementing new tech.


Why is MedTech so important?

An ageing population

We’ve all seen those adverts selling the facial cream that promises to make you look ten years younger. But what a number seven serum can’t do is reverse the ageing process – although Bezos is on the case! It’s not simply that we’re ageing. It’s that our population is living longer than ever before. We’ve entered an age with continuous advances in medicine, better hygiene, enhanced living conditions – all helping us to live healthier and longer lives.

However, this old age brings a whole host of medical complications for individuals. From a higher vulnerability to infectious diseases, to increased chances of contracting Alzheimers. And with the volume of our older generation increasing, the NHS continues to be under pressure to support individuals.

According to the World Health Organisation, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years old is set to nearly double from 12% (2015) to 22% (2050). Whilst 60 might be the new 40, our bodies have a way of slowing us down – which is why new and more efficient ways to care for an ageing population are needed.

Widespread use of such medical technology has the potential to improve health outcomes by helping medical professionals reach more accurate diagnoses earlier and deliver safer, more effective and appropriate treatment. It can also provide vital analytics to help improve the care of future generations.


Yes, you guessed it… the pandemic

The pandemic has shown us just how much we rely on our health services and the implications of a contagious virus on an already strained system. We’ve witnessed an increase in patients, a huge backlog of cancelled appointments and waiting times skyrocketing to months, sometimes years.

The question is, how does the NHS recover? How do we get wait times down, work through the backlog of patients and make sure patients are getting the care they need? Which patients do you prioritise going forward – the waiting list or new conditions? How do you recruit the numbers of medical staff needed for such a mammoth task?

One benefit to the pandemic has been the increased drive to adopt new technologies. In fact, some believe that what we saw was a catalyst for change, with the real transformation yet to come: ‘Covid19 is often said to have triggered ten years of market evolution in ten weeks, but a more meaningful shift will occur in the next two-years’ (Dealroom).

No country was 100% prepared for the pandemic. In fact, some of the richest countries in the world had data from pandemic simulation exercises informing them of their shortcomings a year before the outbreak. The hope is that with such an investment into global health, vaccination programs, bioinformatic platforms and AI-backed health services, we are better prepared for any future pandemics – whether that’s bolstering virtual care, predicting outbreaks or even by developing vaccinations at the push of a button.


Data, data and more data

The NHS is overflowing with patient data, and with over 1 million patients every 36 hours, it’s really no surprise. One major problem is the way this data is managed – is every healthcare worker inputting the data in the same way, using the same terminology? Is this data being integrated accurately into the health record? If not, are diagnostics being re-run, resulting in duplication and increased costs for the NHS?

Discarding old and clunky software and adopting new technology, like a centralised platform to manage patient data, could improve the efficiency of the NHS tenfold. The issue is not the lack of will, but rather the sheer scale of the project. Whose job would it be to migrate all existing patient data over to a new platform? How do you go about picking the right platform? Who can be trusted to handle such sensitive data? How expensive would this be and who bears the cost? These challenges mean that many medical organisations in the UK are still using legacy software and outdated ways of working, increasing IT costs and even the threat of cyber attacks.


Investment into MedTech

So, we know investment into MedTech could make positive and lasting changes to healthcare – but when will these tech advances start to make a noticeable difference? Well, changes are reportedly just around the corner.

Over the past few years, there has been notable investment into MedTech. In 2020 the UK government announced a £32m investment into six health tech projects. The aim being to ‘develop revolutionary technological approaches that aim to transform care and treatments in the NHS by 2050, helping to improve people’s quality of life as they age’. The projects are to focus on various areas of tech including the increasingly popular AI, imaging technologies and robots…just to name a few.

More recently, the government has announced £36 million for AI diagnostics in the NHS, which will go to 38 AI research projects chosen in the NHS AI Lab’s award programme. The programme was launched by Matt Hancock with the aim to support innovative solutions to speed up AI testing in the NHS for greater efficiency in diagnosis and screening services.

“Too many good ideas in the NHS never make it past the pilot stage … it takes 17 years on average for a new product or device to go from successful clinical trial to mainstream adoption. Seventeen years. That is far too long … we need a culture that rewards and incentivises adoption as well as invention”.

Dealroom, Inkep Capital and MTIP have also released a report powered by a database dedicated to mapping and tracking the health innovation ecosystem (Mobi Health News). This report predicts that over the next two years there will be a significant investment into health tech in the UK… and I think we’re already starting to see some of this investment take shape.

The same goes for American investment plans, with the first financial quarter of 2021 featuring more $100 million-plus “mega deals” for digital health companies than all of 2018 and 2019 combined (Health Evolution).


Innovative MedTech

From virtual robots enabling surgeons to operate from the other side of the world, to infectious diseases tracking apps – the possibilities seem to be endless. Let’s take a look at some more really great examples of innovation…


Pandemic pressures

Virtual appointments boomed over the pandemic. This included virtual GP appointments, medical advice through an App, 24/7 support – all to help the UK healthcare system deal with increased demands and reduce face-to-face appointments.

Companies like Babylon, e-consult and Medefers are market leaders for this type of software, reaping significant benefits for their businesses, and our healthcare system. One of e-consult’s case studies revealed that the Sidcup Medical Centre estimated a £40,000 saving in one year alone using their virtual MedTech, through ‘better patient triaging, remote closure, and by having a patient’s history upfront’.

More tech that came from the pandemic panic includes products like the Covid Nudge test. Back in 2020, an Imperial start-up created a way to test people for Coronavirus without having to send samples to the labs and lock themselves inside for two days twiddling their thumbs – cutting down the results time to just 90 minutes. MedTech innovation like this provided the opportunity for the NHS to give the highest quality care to patients and support NHS staff, whilst offering the best chance of tackling the biggest challenge that the NHS has ever faced.


ECS teams up with Cancer Research UK

Early last year, ECS teamed up with Cancer Research UK to design, build and deploy a cloud-based bioinformatic data analytics CI/CD pipeline to support trailblazing functional genomics research. The goal? To accelerate the discovery of new cancer medicines by enabling multiple analytic data sets to be processed every day.

Chris Moore, director of engineering at Cancer Research UK said:

“Cancer Research UK’s ambition is to accelerate progress so that by 2034, 3 in 4 people will survive their cancer for at least 10 years. By working with ECS, we are building the systems needed to help realise this ambition”.

With one in two people being diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes, innovation such as this is so vital – especially as cancer continues to be one of the biggest strains on the NHS to date.


Comfortable with robots helping out in surgery?

We’ve finally reached a time where robots performing lifesaving surgery isn’t just reserved for your weekend sci-fi film. Back in 2020, a transformative surgical robot began the very first minimal access NHS procedure at the Western General Hospital in Edinburgh. The biggest benefit of this robot is that it’s portable – so it can be moved to different areas of the hospital, or even transported to different hospitals entirely.

The tech, named Veruis, has the potential to perform up to 700 MAS (minimal access surgery) procedures each year, which otherwise may have been performed by open surgery. For anyone not clued up on the medical jargon, this means that instead of an individual undergoing a huge operation, this robot can perform a smaller operation sometimes referred to as ‘keyhole surgery’. This could lead to shorter recovery times for patients, more beds becoming available and lower costs to the NHS in the long run.

And whilst we’re on the subject of robots… they’re also helping to reduce fatigue and injury among carers, as well as reducing the number of carers required! The robots, known as cobots, are worn around the carers waists to support them in lifting, holding and moving people without assistance. This cuts the risk of infection caused by involving an extra person – something that’s been especially important during the pandemic.


Amazing innovation… but what’s the catch?

All this investment into new tech is obviously great, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned against overestimating the benefits of such innovation – more specifically, AI.

Whilst some countries are already using AI to improve things like accuracy of diagnoses, supporting drug development and empowering patients to take greater control of their own healthcare, AI opportunities are also linked to risks – bias in algorithms, unethical use of health data and threats to patient safety and the environment, just to name a few.

A study released in 2020, ‘Will the AI revolution cause a great divergence?’, found that new technology, like AI, risks widening the gap between rich and poor countries. More money is thought to be invested into already advanced economies, where automation is readily established.

If you’re interested in learning more about AI, why it’s become so popular today and the potential drawbacks, check out our AI blog series here.

Another issue we have is trying to implement these new and improved technologies into our health system. Whether that’s updating the platforms we use for patient data, or purchasing robots to assist with surgery, how do we prioritise which tech to invest in?

Once we’ve chosen the tech to invest in, are there enough skilled people to use this new tech? How long will training campaigns take to fill any skill gaps? What are the costs associated? It’s not enough to come up with something brilliant, it has to be ready and easy to use too.


A few final thoughts

With an increasing need for new, more efficient technologies that can improve healthcare, diagnostics and quality of lie, the pressure is on to continue innovating.

The good news is, the importance of this technology is being recognised by governments all around the world, leading to things like heavier investment into MedTech and changes in regulation to promote more innovation. In the words of Hugh Laurie, actor, author, comedian,

“I have always stuck up for Western medicine. You can chew all the celery you want, but without antibiotics, three-quarters of us would not be here.”

If you’re interested in learning more about health tech, the benefits, what’s on the horizon and answers to some of the challenges mentioned above, keep your eyes peeled for our Medical Innovation podcast coming soon.


More about the author:

Hi, I’m Louise Fenn and I’m from sunny Yorkshire! Up until now, I have spent my career working in healthcare – but I thought it was time for a change. I joined ECS in April 2021 as a Content Marketing Executive, with a keen interest in writing and design. I’m really enjoying my time at ECS and I’m excited to deepen my knowledge of the world of tech.

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