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An update from Professor Tony Young, National Clinical Lead for Innovation at NHS England

The NHS’s Clinical Entrepreneur programme is the world’s biggest entrepreneurial workforce programme dedicated to health and life sciences innovation. The Medical Technology Group sat down with its founder, Professor Tony Young, to talk about the programme’s successes, scaling out new technology, and why innovators needs to work with patients.

Can you explain to us how the NHS Clinical Entrepreneur Programme is driving innovation across the NHS? 

The programme was founded in 2015 and we’ve recently appointed our 1300th clinical entrepreneur. In the last nine years we’ve helped set up 504 new life science startups, benefited over 180 million patients and professionals through innovation, and we’ve raised just under a billion pounds in funding. 

One of the great pleasures of having watched this programme develop is realising the incredible potential NHS staff have to change the system from within. Previously, some of these staff may have left the NHS to pursue the development of their innovations elsewhere, but this programme has turned a potential brain drain into a brain gain. This can be observed through the innovations we’ve seen in direct clinical applications – but also through operational improvements in the way we run the system. 

To give you an example, Deep Medical is an artificial intelligence that can predict non-attendance at outpatient appointments. In Mid and South Essex NHS Foundation Trust, this allows us to implement a dynamic scheduling system, creating an extra 150,000 outpatient appointments a year. It’s these small innovations that can be really transformative – if this was rolled out nationally it could create an extra 12 million appointments across the NHS.

Another excellent example is the way in which clinicians have helped diagnostic capacity by making specialist knowledge freely available across the system. Buku Medicine is a web app that answers the most common questions haematologists are asked. 45,000 clinicians have now downloaded it and there’s a growing body of evidence to suggest it has helped reduce unnecessary referrals.

How can we improve the scale and pace of innovation across the NHS? 

When adopting technology and innovation, it’s important to also focus on the capacity and capability of the system to change. You have to focus on the changes to a pathway, changes to patient experiences and also the changes to what staff have to do. 

There are initiatives available that help do this. The National Innovation Accelerator, for example, takes promising and proven ideas and helps them scale them across the system. 

The Clinical Entrepreneur programme has also developed the NHS England InSites programme, a testing and evaluation model that has been piloted across 18 NHS trusts. The idea is that by sharing testing, trialing, procuring and adopting procedures you can create one set of paperwork that can speed up the adoption of innovation. 

It’s also important to realise that the population isn’t uniform. Different areas have different population health priorities and needs. You can’t test and uptake everything at once. When considering scale we should all work towards a system where the right innovation is available for those who need it most.

We often hear talk of medical technology ‘transforming the NHS’. To what extent do you think this potential is being realised? 

It’s important to remember we’ve got to do a whole range of things when bringing new technology and innovation into the NHS. We must seek to understand clinicians as well as patients and their carers in order to understand what’s right for them. Then you can start to understand how technology can transform healthcare. Too often in the past, we’ve seen patients and clinicians not involved. 

This collaborative element of bringing effective technology to the NHS is therefore vital. Innovators must consider a number of factors: they must address a national priority, decrease friction for patients and providers, remove steps from a care pathway, and provide real world data from the system. It simply isn’t possible for them to do this on their own. It’s through collaborative networks that you really make a difference and I believe these are starting to strengthen year on year. 

March 2024

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