Strained NHS outlines a new medtech strategy

Across England and Wales, over 40,000 nurses and paramedics began a strike called the largest in the National Health System (NHS)’s history. 

The strike has forced the cancellation of hundreds of thousands of appointments. Many patients are expected to wait 18 months for surgery as delays compound. The Royal College of Emergency Medicine estimated that the strike could be causing hundreds of preventable deaths per week.

Before this strike, the system was already stretched thin with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, as death rates remain higher than normal.

This firestorm over labor conditions and healthcare worker pay is the backdrop against which the NHS published its first policy paper about its new medtech adoption strategy.

Let’s dig into what the plan proposes, what industry reactions to the plan are thus far, and what the current state of the NHS tells us about the challenges of medtech adoption.

The proposal: supercharging British medtech to improve care

The plan’s goals include spending £10 billion annually on medtech. 

It outlines paths to improving medtech device supply to increase the efficiency of patient care as well as encouraging innovative research to increase the UK’s scientific reputation.

In its foreword, the paper asserts: “Effective use of medtech will be critical in moving forwards from the pandemic, supporting the elective recovery plan by reducing diagnostic bottlenecks and waiting lists, and by delivering new and improved ways to treat and support patients.”

To pursue this goal, the paper outlines four priority areas on which the funding will focus:

  1. The resilience and continuity of the medtech product supply
  2. Encouraging cohesion across the product market, to better understand and serve the disparate needs across the system
  3. Enabling technical infrastructure systemwide
  4. Identifying and promoting specific market focusses 

The paper underscores supporting and making better use of the large medtech industry within the UK. It cites the UK medtech industry being a major player domestically and internationally, with an estimated £27.6 billion annual domestic turnover and £5.6 billion in annual exports.

Chart: MedTech Pulse
Chart: MedTech Pulse

Reactions to the paper have been generally positive, but even the London-based Health Tech Alliance, a coalition of medtech companies, is cautious in its optimism.

The plan includes many of the Alliance’s recommendations, but appears to fall short of what the Alliance says is needed to ensure efficient adoption of life-saving care.

In a LinkedIn post, the Alliance shared a statement from Policy Lead Ellie Kearney.

“It takes approximately 17 years for a device to be adopted in the NHS, and it is extremely disappointing that the strategy did not touch on faster adoption routes,” Kearney said. “It also offered no solutions for sustainable long-term funding solutions which are key for SMEs and the industry at large if they hope to be adopted within the NHS at this time of need.”

The NHS is, after all, is still working to end its providers’ widespread reliance on pagers, an initiative that was supposed to have been wrapped up by 2021. As of 2019, when the initiative began, the NHS was using roughly 130,000 pagers—an estimated 10% of the devices used around the world at the time.

The challenge of the pager initiative—and the estimated 17-year timeline of new device adoption which Kearney referenced—suggests that, to many NHS providers, reliability and trust may outweigh the prospects of new technologies. 

With that kind of resistance, widespread novel technology adoption isn’t a small issue to scoff at. 

Our perspective: don’t underestimate the challenges of adoption

This issue reminds us of our recent discussion of medtech’s innovation-implementation gap.

As we said when considering the provider tech literacy gap with respect to medical AI, health systems must not underestimate the challenges of medtech adoption. 

Innovation needs to be done with providers in mind—and, ideally, involved. This is not just to say that practicing providers should be consulted on the ground floor of product development, of course. Providers must be trained in developing technologies—as early as possible in their careers.

And when they are inevitably trained in and asked to use new technologies and devices in clinical practice, the realities of their current work must be considered. 

In a time when so many NHS providers are striking over working conditions, the ways in which technology can ease their burden—rather than add further complexity to their jobs—must be emphasized. 

Innovation alone is not enough for medtech to actually improve patients’ lives. Only when providers are holistically incentivized and taught to trust medtech in their work will the benefits trickle down to patients.

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