Robin Vickers is the founder and managing director of Birmingham-based Digital Life Sciences, set up to transform healthcare through patient-centred digital solutions. “We were created through the merger of three companies, because we all wanted to change the interactions between patients and healthcare professionals, and were convinced that healthcare was lagging behind other strategic sectors in its adoption of digital,” he says.
“If you look at banking, insurance, travel, retail and many other areas of business activity, they have transformed how they engage with customers over the last decade, through their effective use of technology.
“However, you look at healthcare in Britain, the penetration of digital as a disruptive vehicle for change is still tiny, although the case for its use is very powerful, judged by either the best and most effective use of NHS resources, or the best outcomes for patients.
“For us, there are two key issues. How easily can individuals access doctors or nurses for advice, diagnosis and treatment, and how can they be best supported to self-manage their condition, and their long-term care issues remotely, and in settings which are most convenient and comfortable for them.
“I think individuals should be able to access Skype-style services from their home, their place of work, or even as they travel, and access other healthcare services remotely, without needing to go to their GP, an A&E unit or hospital, all of which are under enormous and ever-increasing pressure.”
Vickers cites multiple research studies indicating that some two-thirds of people would like to access their healthcare requirements remotely. As evidence of a funding crisis within the NHS continues to surface, he also considers the logic for the provision of new digital solutions is overwhelming.
“If you study the patient data for those with long-term conditions, such as diabetes and asthma, their treatment accounts for between 70-80% of the public cost of the health service, so ways of reducing that figure need to be urgently considered,” argues Vickers.
“The biggest challenge though is the complexity of the NHS’s procurement networks. At the moment, we sell products and services directly to healthcare providers, and to commissioning bodies, but the fragmentation of the structure is so great that it remains very difficult for new entrants to the purchasing market.
“We find ourselves not only providing products and services, but also having to create new pathways to deliver them to the people and organisations who require them, and ultimately, it’s the patients who suffer.”
Binding Site CEO Charles de Rohan is impressed at how the region’s professional services community is interacting with the healthcare and life science sectors. “Every aspect of the health economy is complex and sometimes confusing for those new to it, so it’s very positive to see firms looking to understand more about how we operate, and what we need,” he says.
“In terms of promoting these sectors, and attracting tenants, suppliers and investors, Marketing Birmingham continues to impress, as does its willingness to explore opportunities.
“There are always going to be major challenges when companies and organisations are growing at such a pace; real estate is an obvious one, as is the need to attract and retain talent, so the support of the city council and the LEP is particularly appreciated.
“I am intrigued to hear the council leader, Coun. John Clancy, talk about his concept of ‘Brummie Bonds’ as a possible source of investment for our industry, and to hear his suggestion that the regional local authority pension fund might also provide finance.”
De Rohan is equally pleased by the commitment of the area’s higher education providers to the West Midland’s healthcare, biotech, pharma and life sciences community. “The links to education are very important too,” he says. “The cluster which has evolved in this area wouldn’t have developed so powerfully or so swiftly without the presence, support, research capabilities and talent of such universities as Birmingham, Aston, Birmingham City, Coventry and Warwick.
“Binding Site is also establishing formal links with local schools, to help give teenagers a deeper insight into what we do as a company, and what amazing career opportunities lie within the healthcare and life science sectors.
“We have already set up a partnership with Joseph Chamberlain College, and are about to establish a second one, so we can help broaden the horizons of their pupils, by bringing them here to learn about us and the world of healthcare.
“We want to attract the next generation of school-leavers to our industry, and the first step is to create a structure which enables them to discover more about us and other members of our community.”
A major research project gets underway in April, aimed at tackling the long-term issue of miscarriages. Around 250,000 occur every year, and roughly a third of women suffer more than one of these traumatic events. The National Tommy’s Centre for Early Miscarriage Care and Research (NEMC) is the first in the UK and the largest in Europe and the University of Warwick has been chosen as a partner, together with the University of Birmingham and Imperial College London.
Researchers from Warwick Medical School (led by Professors Siobhan Quenby and Jan Brosens) and the university’s Institute of Digital Healthcare will be involved. The latter’s Professor Theo Arvanitis is leading the team which will develop a clinical database to support the NEMC and evolve a sophisticated predictive model to reduce the number of miscarriages,
“Tommy’s, the baby and pregnancy charity, funded the project and we’ve assembled a very powerful consortium across the three centres,” he says. “We’ll have a large group of academics in our work team, and will be using modules from our existing Comprehensive Unified Research (CURe) Framework, which was a key reason that our tender was accepted. We’ll also be creating a national database, initially by taking information from all three centres.
“Once we’ve brought together all the existing online clinical data, we can add new data so it will effectively act as a registry for information on miscarriages. We’ll then be able to harness the power of this data to identify the major influences on this condition.”
Prof Arvanitis expects assembling the initial tranche of data to take less than two years. At the same time, other consortium members in life sciences and healthcare will be exploring potential new techniques to reduce the incidence of miscarriages.
“It’s a lengthy programme of study, including controlled trials. We hope to start a pilot after two years, and by year four to be building the database at a national level,” he says. “There has already been much research into miscarriages, so we can gradually create a fusion of data and clinical trials to discover the best outcomes. The 250,000 figure is between 10% and 15% of all births, so a surprisingly large percentage.
Age, general health, previous history, environment and lifestyle are all major factors, and smoking remains a significant influence. However, until now there hasn’t been the resources to create a predictive model which allows data-driven conclusions to be reached.”