With more than 500 medical technology companies, the West Midlands healthcare sector is already more significant than in any other UK region. However, its rapid growth isn’t solely down to the talent and commitment of healthcare professionals, academics, researchers and biotech entrepreneurs. The professional services sector also plays a crucial role by providing specialist knowledge, access to funding streams and business advice on an array of topics.
Mike Standing, who leads Deloitte’s team on life sciences and healthcare for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, is currently advising on a series of major initiatives to understand how evidence and data can transform health outcomes and productivity. He believes the region’s healthcare cluster has the potential to make a significant impact on a global scale. “There are several major clusters in Western Europe; the Golden Triangle linking Oxford, London and Cambridge, and others in Scandinavia, France and Germany, but the big issue is not to see yourselves as competing with them or other locations,” suggests Standing.
“The challenge is to identify what is being done which no-one else does as well, and to leverage that uniqueness on an international scale. For example, there is a cluster around Copenhagen specialising in acoustics and hearing aids, and Minneapolis offers huge expertise in medical devices.
“The secret is to identify areas of expertise in which you can become genuinely distinctive. There is already a dynamic life sciences cluster here, driven by the tremendous inter-connectivity between universities, hospitals, the public sector and the health trusts.
“There’s also a world-class presence in advanced clinical trials, and the new Institute of Translational Medicine will enhance that reputation. There is a uniquely diverse population too, which is a tremendous asset, and I feel a real sense of collaboration between all the various parties.
“They’re working together to devise new procedures, new medical devices and new forms of treatment, and the level of innovation is attracting significant attention. Now we need to attract more investment to support yet more R&D into advanced technologies and solutions.
“We’ve already seen the tremendous work done by Charlie Craddock and his team in clinical haematology, and now there’s real energy about moving new ideas forward in other areas of healthcare and medicine.”
At Wragge Lawrence Graham & Co, healthcare specialist and partner Bleddyn Rees also considers the region to be developing significant expertise in ‘connected health’. He says: “We’re seeing exceptional progress in areas which link digital telecoms to pharmaceuticals, such as tele-health and tele-medicine, which at one level is about bringing disruptive technology to the health industry.
“Its importance in the current environment is that everyone, particularly those in the public sector, have to do more for less – especially as the cost of the latest drugs and healthcare services is rising, and the growing population is ageing.
“The Holy Grail is to generate better health outcomes and patient experiences whilst driving costs down, and a big part is devising ways to give people greater independence and to allow them to stay in their own homes for longer. We’re seeing companies inventing many types of remote monitoring and diagnostics, allowing healthcare professionals to learn more about an individual’s condition, and giving families the ability to monitor a relative’s domestic environment.
“University Hospital Birmingham (UHB), has also made tremendous advances in the ways in which data is collated and used, and has a very impressive health informatics system. Patients can now book appointments, check-in and access their records online, which increases both access and productivity.
“It might surprise outsiders, but care homes have become early adopters of sophisticated ‘connected health’ technology. The providers of social care were very quick to realise the technological advances which have been made, and have become the leaders in its use.”
However passionate Rees is about the potential for such technology though, he readily accepts that there are challenges ahead in taking innovations forward. “The biggest is probably getting the NHS to buy these products and services, which is largely down to them becoming available in the correct scale and at the right cost,” he admits. “Will the technology help deliver clinical innovations, or better patient experiences and improved outcomes? In terms of advanced new drug treatments, how swiftly and effectively can they be moved through the regulatory and compliance regimes?
“One major issue which has always impacted on the NHS is that around 50% of all drugs are not taken by patients – for multiple reasons. It would be a major breakthrough if an effective ‘drug adherence’ platform could be delivered.
“Innovations in the way we use technology and data are helping manage patients better – it’s important other hospitals learn from UHB’s example.” Protecting innovations is another important area of activity for the region’s professional services sector, and Marks & Clerk partner Pam Bryer says much of the work done by her and her colleagues concerns medical devices.
“It’s a broad spectrum of work because the sector is thriving. We’ve seen everything from large and sophisticated equipment designed to be used in operating theatres through to small devices which are for people in their homes.
“Most items from the medical sector are patent-related. We don’t see many providers looking to protect their innovations by design, and I think more could be made by companies of their designs to bolster their IP property provision.
“Most of the IP work is done on behalf of the smaller start-ups because you come across so many infringements in this sector. Companies have to decide whether to go after an infringement full-bore, or if it just needs a letter.
“We haven’t seen many infringement cases of late. It may be that people don’t want to get involved in litigation, or are deciding it’s not worth the expense.”
Bryer also sees a new wave of entrepreneurial activity coming from individuals who have decided to set up on their own. “They might be engineers, or they’ve been in the NHS, but it’s all about people having a bright idea and then having the courage to set up in business. From that perspective, the pipeline is looking good, but from a patent perspective, people still aren’t making enough use of the tax breaks in the ‘Patent Box’ scheme.
“It looks as if the government will close that initiative to new entrants in the summer of 2016, but it’s certainly still worth looking at, if you’re looking to get the most commercial and tax benefits from your innovation.”