Digital innovation, workforce well-being, plugging the productivity gap and the ‘NHS pound’ topped a packed agenda at the West Midlands Academic Health Science Network’s (WMAHSN) fourth annual economic summit.
Good health leads to good economic growth,” says Professor Michael Sheppard, WMAHSN chair, opening the fourth annual economic summit.
Four years ago, at the WMAHSN’s first economic summit, this was a novel and unfamiliar suggestion. Today, all speakers agree that investing in life sciences not only improves the health of the local population, but is a key driver of economic growth.
How might the essential investment in life sciences continue in a post-Brexit landscape though, and can the region use strengths in digital innovation and an economically-aware NHS as cornerstones for growth?
WMAHSN’s commercial director Tony Davis sets the scene: “All pharma, device and diagnostic conversations are now formed within the context of digital and data. It provides the best economic bang for buck in healthcare spend.
“At the WMAHSN, we will continue to work with our LEPs and devolved authorities to drive investment into life sciences, to support industry and for the benefit of NHS, as well as working with academic colleagues.
“As a partner of Health EIT, a European programme, we’ve attracted close to £2m of additional European funding, creating great programmes of work, and there is a commitment for UK organisations to be partners of that as it continues.
“Working with the Midlands Engine and regional organisations we’ve also attracted £16m of additional investment into the region, and there could be substantially more as we progress activity over the next two to three years.
“During 2017, we had more than 2,600 interactions with local and national companies, and spent 6,500 hours supporting companies to develop digital products and services that can benefit the NHS in the West Midlands.
“We established the SME innovation fund and £50,000 has already been invested in ten companies; and £1.5m loaned to businesses. Funding can be paid back in shares or equity, or by paying the money back in, making it a recyclable fund.
“Our seven-point growth plan is beginning to make a difference and we’ve heard some incredible stories from organisations about what digital investment means.”
Digital investment is vital for the NHS, which is looking at the optimal ways to deliver care with scant resource.
Andy Williams, accountable officer at Sandwell and West Birmingham CCG, and the Black Country’s STP lead, spells out the role the NHS plays in the regional economy. “Up to £1 in every £15 in the economy is said to be an ‘NHS pound’. By any reckoning, the NHS is a major economic player just through its direct expenditure, and its also important as an employer and landlord and contributor to local productivity.
“We now need to address a triple challenge, to deliver sustainable health and care. We must address health outcomes, address consistency in the quality of care and try to balance resources. The figures show that the NHS is a big player in our regional economy – annual spend of £2bn, 29,000 jobs.
“A significant portion of the workforce is involved in health and care, but I believe we’ve undersold our potential contribution.
“There are really huge opportunities here, to spend money wisely, differently, and to think about how we are doing this in a way that contributes to well-being in a wider sense, so we’re quite excited about those opportunities.”
Addressing the scale of those opportunities, Kathryn Hudson, programme director for Birmingham and Solihull STP, says: “The STP is a partnership of organisations that has a significant reach, commissioning for over 1.3 million people. “Health is everybody’s business and our whole approach is to bring together health and local authorities and other partners, and by coming together we can make a better impact on people’s health and well-being.
“One goal is to maximise resources and productivity but going forward we have significant challenges. These are about our future workforce, our estate that needs updating, and taking forward a digital agenda to work smarter and work with partners in a more integrated way. We need the right resources at the right time.”
As Hudson and Williams join Davis in a panel discussion, there are challenging questions from delegates. “When will we see the benefits of the STPs?”
Williams responds strongly: “I think you could argue that we’re seeing them straight away really. But when will we realise all the benefits? Never – this is an ongoing process.
“We didn’t start from a standstill, and we’re already a year into delivering changes. Some changes have already made a difference to delivery of care.
“We’re working to a five-year timeframe, so the acid test will be the extent to which we’ve delivered sustainable health and care in five years’ time. NHS structures come and go fairly frequently, but ideas endure. We have to get a balance of short term and long-term solutions and the benefits of partnership working don’t change.”
One way benefits are being delivered straight away is through digital health and WMAHSN’s business manager Neil Mortimer is clear about the significant impact of digital disruption. “Digital is just how things work now. But digital health isn’t about the technology, its about people using technology, using data, to improve knowledge. We’re establishing Digital Health West Midlands, a digital health and data learning community and a digital global exemplars network to spread learning.”
Sharing his experience working with and establishing start-ups, Cliff Dennett, the head of business development at the Innovation Birmingham Campus, says: “The good news is that we have growth in start-ups. Problem is, its easy to start a business, but growing it is hard.
“We need to fix the problem of a single founder starting up, and not growing beyond a few employees. The winner is the first company to grow and scale.”
Providing an emotive example of a start-up hoping to use funding to help achieve scale, the co-founder of Birmingham-based Give Vision, Elodie Draperi, shares her innovative technology idea. “We have developed an augmented reality technology to help people with sight loss and we’ve been testing our virtual reality headsets with hundreds of people across the UK.
“We’ve raised more than £800,000 and we’re researching with Moorfields and Aston University. Working with our wide network, including WMAHSN, we hope to bring this technology to more people.”
Olivia Hind, head of partnerships at Oviva – a provider of technology-based solutions and intervention programmes related to diet – said her organisation was also using collaboration to address diabetes, a major issue for the NHS. “Type 2 diabetes is a problem in the West Midlands, with a higher prevalence than the national average. We know that 60% of people do not have good self-care. We tried to develop a programme that would overcome barriers to improve health outcomes.
“Our programme and app has a 75% uptake rate, and a clinically significant health outcome. It also delivers a £1,000 saving per participant, which could save the NHS more than £100m nationally.”
Inspired by the debate, delegates then posed questions, first challenging whether there is sufficient supply of skilled workforce to address digital development needs. “Signs are encouraging that the supply of skilled developers is improving. There’s been a 2% increase nationally, and we’ve had a 7% increase in Birmingham,” said Dennett.
One delegate questions why they can view a bank statement or turn on their heating via their mobile phone, but not book a GP appointment. “Back in 1998, when I was chief executive of a primary care trust, 37% of my patients could book an appointment through their digital TV, and then it stopped. We’ve had electronic booking, and then the national programme came in,” recalled Mortimer.
“The reality is, there are a lot of innovations, but whether you’re a patient, a carer, a clinician, an entrepreneur, or a manager in the system,we need to find ways of proving that doing it is right, and not doing it is wrong.
“That’s why at the WMAHSN we’re working on collaborations. Not everybody does bank online, but those that do, should be able to interact with the NHS that way too.”
Calling on delegates to grasp the opportunities to do just that, Pam Waddell, director of the Innovation Alliance for the West Midlands, said: “We have 105 pages on the Midlands Engine, and 100 pages of the WMCA’s innovation strengths, and a 250-page industrial strategy document – but how do we actually move forward and make something happen?
“The Midlands Engine has accelerator projects in development, the combined authority has an innovation board taking a strategic lead, and we have the new Innovation Alliance WM, helping get projects off the ground.
“We also have an innovative health working group, which is open to new members. There is still ERDF funding available, the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund are the government’s response to reduced EU funding. We should be ready to take these forward, putting us at the forefront of the AI and data revolution, so stay engaged.”
Katie Judge, executive director for the GBSLEP, picked up this theme, adding: “Our organisation, alongside the others, is in the position to deliver this industrial strategy, and to add value by bringing together the public sector, private sector, local growth fund and local growth hubs, to make sure we engage and support SMEs.”
With so much planned for the region, Davis explains the WMAHSN’s role in ensuring effective collaboration between the many health and technology bodies to improve productivity. “Working with the combined authority to improve productivity and skills, our research shows we need a long-term approach to skills that is employer-led.
“We need to understand the opportunities around health education and work with employers on health issues like musculoskeletal, mental health or diet and exercise, which are affecting productivity. A lot of considerations around closing the productivity gap are in the health space.
“Our goal at the WMAHSN is to influence all six of our STPs in our region, to be involved, and to understand what their economic footprint is, and work with the combined authority to take this forward.”
Focusing on the need for employers to understand the importance of a healthy workforce, Sean Russell, director of implementation for the WMCA’s mental health commission, said: “One in four people suffer with their mental health, so is there a workplan about how we treat our people in our workforces? Is there awareness?
“Are managers equipped to manage tough conversations? At board level, we all need to look at how we can work from the top down and the bottom up to create little nudges that support people to be healthier.”
In the final panel discussion, a delegate asks what can be done to help and encourage SME owners to address well-being in the workplace. “There is a well-being charter currently being developed, which will enable board engagement and communications. As part of that, we’re working to develop a toolkit for businesses,” said Russell.
Following many mentions of grassroots involvement, a delegate asks what efforts are being made to involve the third sector in STPs and WMCA decision-making. “We are really reliant on our third sector partners to support us, and we have a reference group that supports that. There is a wider plan, as we move forward, to look at how we collaborate more,” said Russell.
“There is also the Innovation Alliance, open to all. Its independent and there’s no cost to get involved. Inclusive growth is important to us all,” added Waddell.
The discussion turned to consider how co-design is already being used in healthcare to engage audiences at the grassroots level. “Co-design isn’t just trendy and on-message. Its a principle that we can use, working together across acute and primary care to help promote self-care. It is a person-centred approach that should stay right at the heart of everything we do,” said Mortimer.
Finishing the debate, and the conference, is the issue of how local populations and the third sector can best get involved in the healthcare economy.
“How do we get people engaged with health and well-being, and how do we say that as individuals we have a responsibility to look after our own health?” asked Davis. “We engage with healthcare when it goes wrong, but the notion of getting involved in staying well is low on everyone’s priority list.
“We need to look at citizen engagement and how we engage in times of wellness as well as in times of illness. Looking at both digital technology and self-care, we must begin learning lessons from other sectors, and this will be a key cornerstone of our digital health plans for the future.”