Increasing strain on the NHS has given rise to a wave of innovation in the healthcare sector, as brands tap into people’s needs to take control of their own health.
It is estimated that there are 370 million GP consultations a year – up 70 million over the past five years, according to a survey from the British Medical Association. Research from the House of Commons Library, meanwhile, shows 14.2 million patients had to wait a week to get an appointment with their doctor or failed to do so entirely in 2015, up from 13.8 million in 2014.
Last month, NHS England earmarked £2.4bn of funding and announced a five-year plan to help GPs recover from the increasing strain on their services, but the current environment has seen healthcare startups already making headway in revolutionising the sector, following on from similar developments in the US market.
A report from Accenture claims that the investment in on-demand healthcare will rise from $250m (£171m) to $1bn (£690m) per year in the US by 2017. So far, the available products and services aim to enable users not only to access healthcare on their terms but also maximise the time they spend with medical professionals by taking a patient-centric approach.
One such company in this country is PushDoctor.co.uk, an online service that connects patients with a network of more than 7,000 GPs via video consultations. The company raised $8.2m (£5.62m) in financing in January and plans to invest in its brand position, carry out further product innovations and expand the business’s management structure, including making key marketing and product hires.
“The [House of Commons] figures show the extent of demand for GP services in the UK and the number of people who don’t get the resolution or result they require in good time or at all when feeling unwell,” says PushDoctor founder and CEO Eren Ozagir.
He adds that the company is “creating a category” and is focused on “adding services to allow patients to deal with even more complex issues” on the digital platform.
This means continually speaking to patients and conducting research in order to further develop the proposition. Ozagir says: “We have been speaking with customers, behavioural experts and analysts to understand what people see in us, what they love, what they need from us and what they wish for us to be.”
People and knowledge-power will have an unusually important contribution to make to healthcare in the UK in the coming 15 years, according to a report by innovation charity Nesta on what the NHS will look like in 2030.
It says new digital technologies also enable people to track and analyse their own health data, and to share this and other health knowledge with companies in ways that will aid prevention and management of long-term illnesses.
“There are many inefficiencies in the medical system that can be improved through innovation“
Sarah Kerruish, TrialReach
The ‘power of knowledge’ trend is already in motion at companies such as uMotif – a digital health startup focusing on strengthening relationships between those with chronic illnesses and their practitioners. Similarly, TrialReach is doing the same as a global platform that enables patients suffering with serious conditions to find clinical trials targeted at their symptoms.
UMotif is available for 14 chronic conditions and has been developed with a broad spectrum of partners. It worked with support and research charity Parkinson’s UK recently on a global citizen science project called 100 for Parkinson’s.
The project, which launched this year, asks healthy people and those with the disease to track their health for 100 days so that uMotif can better understand the unmet needs of people with the condition.
Alistair Stuart, operations director at uMotif, says: “The app becomes the in-pocket companion that guides [patients] and gives you a place where you can put all your feelings about the condition; good days and bad days. It helps you to manage it.”
For uMotif, it is about using that knowledge to “build the quality time” that patients have with doctors. Stuart adds: “You see your doctor for half an hour every six months. The point is to try to enrich the limited time you do have with your doctor and help patients and care teams to get the most out of those interactions.”
TrialReach says it launched its services because medicines and new treatments were being delayed by years, since patients were not taking part in medical research.
“Essentially, it’s a collaborative effort to try to advance medical research and transform the way people connect with it,” explains chief strategy and growth officer Sarah Kerruish.
Taking scattered data on clinical trials, which previously made it difficult to match patients to trials or look at information in one place, was a huge undertaking for the company because although patients can search for trials, the exclusions often rule them out.
Kerruish says: “We are taking that data and structuring it to make it machine-readable, so that people can be matched across all trials in seconds based on the specifics of their condition, which has never been done before.”
TrialReach’s main market is the US because it has been quicker to adopt the offering and people were more “willing to take a chance”. But the company now lists some trials in the UK and is exploring ways to work with the NHS.
The Nesta study also reveals that ‘social innovation’ is key to people wanting to be involved in their own care and that of others.
CreateHealth.io uses crowdsourcing to provide customer or patient insight to companies in order to improve or create services based on real customer needs.
Co-founder Kate Eversole says there is a real social and community element to the insight it collects. She says: “With crowdsourcing, sometimes people could get points or we could pay them but what we found from research is that their core driver is to help others. They want to know you will take what they give you and it will be used to help someone else.”
However, honesty is vital. Eversole adds: “Being transparent in what you are doing, why, who you are sharing it with and what you hope will be the output has helped build trust, the brand and relationships with patients.”
Kerruish at TrialReach adds that digital medicine is the “last frontier of the digital revolution”. She believes it will play an important future role in health and suggests there are “many inefficiencies in the medical system that can be improved through innovation”. The sector should therefore be prepared for more patient-led disruption.