Tech4CV19 is a matchmaking service set up to put NHS leaders in touch with health tech suppliers during the Covid-19 crisis, and to put health tech suppliers in touch with sources of business support. One of its co-founders, Nicola Haywood-Alexander, explains how it has evolved to respond to an unmet need, and how it plans to go on meeting that need in the future.
One of the more remarkable features of the NHS’ response to the coronavirus pandemic has been its rapid uptake of technology.
In the early weeks of the crisis, national, regional and local bodies moved to roll-out remote working platforms, shared care record projects, EPR configurations, and virtual clinics and consultations. There were even a few patient-facing innovations, with NHS Digital increasing the capacity and range of NHS 111, and NHSX launching a competition for remote monitoring technology.
Yet despite the pace and scale of the response, both the NHS frontline and the health tech industry faced challenges. There was no easy way for suppliers to reach either national bodies or individual trusts and GP practices with offers of help, and there was no easy way for NHS organisations to evaluate the offers being made to them.
The result, as the Highland Marketing advisory board has pointed out, is that there has been a lot of emphasis on a few, high profile deployments by ‘big tech’ companies, while opportunities to support smaller, indigenous suppliers with more innovative ideas may have been missed.
As the NHS looks to ‘reset, not just recover’ from the coronavirus emergency, and to reboot the integrated care agenda with its promise of a more responsive service for patients, there may be scope for a second wave of innovation.
So, new entrants, start-ups and scale-ups may get more of a look-in. However, this will only happen if health tech can get in front of decision makers, and decision makers can be confident of finding the health tech they need. Which is where Tech4CV19 comes in.
Matching health services to health tech
Nicola Haywood-Alexander, one of the co-founders of Tech4CV19, says the initiative grew out of conversations on social media and the WhatsApp messaging platform in the early days of the pandemic. “I was one of a number of health CIOs using social media to try and work out how we could help one another, and how suppliers could help us,” she says.
“It was obvious that CIOs and their clinical colleagues simply couldn’t deal with their inboxes being inundated with offers; they needed somewhere to go to locate and evaluate specific offers of help. And it wasn’t just NHS colleagues; the same applied to key workers in social care, charities and the voluntary sector who needed to digitise their services.
“So, one night, I sat down and set up a Slack site, created a suite of Google Sheets on which to capture information about companies and solutions, and integrated them into the site. Within a week we had over 350 members and it had just kept growing.”
Now, there are almost 1,000 “change makers” as Nicola and her team of volunteers (she calls them “wizards”) refer to the community members registered with Tech4CV19.
Matching health tech to business support
While the initiative started as a way to “matchmake” health tech innovations with health organisations, it soon became clear to its founders that some of the innovators were going to need help to deliver at the scale required.
“We saw there were a lot of small and medium sized enterprises out there with great products that wouldn’t be able to scale quickly without financial support,” Nicola says. “Just trying would run the risk of them going bust.
“So, one of the things that the community has been doing has been looking for ways to support SMEs and to help them develop their business maturity and to navigate what is still a very challenging landscape.”
Tech4CV19 is working on a “CRM-type engine” to facilitate its matchmaking, which now covers both helping frontline organisations to find health tech and health tech suppliers to find business support.
“Our plan is that en-route to displaying their product in our market place, the engine will facilitate a self-assessment for innovators with regard to clinical, technical and business maturity of their companies,” Nicola says.
“That will come with signposting to support, advice and development, and the opportunity to display certifications, standards met and catalogues the supplier belongs to – all in one place.”
Uncovering a need
The challenges that led to the Tech4CV19 initiative have not gone away. If anything, the Highland Marketing advisory board heard at its last meeting, the challenges faced by new entrants, start-ups and scale-ups may have become greater during the Covid-19 emergency.
The crisis has led to a significant, but under-reported reorganisation of the NHS, in which its central organisations have taken a firmer grip, regional structures have reappeared, and much of the old commissioning structure has vanished.
At the same time, the innovation networks that were supposed to support clinical innovation have gone all-but missing in action, and the big national roll outs and procurements have added further complexity to an already complex buying process. Added to which, it is far from clear how funding is flowing around the system.
Nicola argues that all this means that an initiative like Tech4CV19 will be needed for the foreseeable future. “What has come out of this is that people are saying: ‘We realise this is something that we did not have before and that we are going to need in the future,” she says.
“We are only just going into the recovery, it is going to be long, and there will be further challenges. But there is still a massive opportunity for digital health and care, as long as both the NHS and suppliers can take it.”
Planning for the future
Up to now, Tech4CV19 has been run as a peer-to-peer community, with its development down to volunteers and organisations offering pro bono services, and a strong emphasis on collaboration. However, it is now looking at its future, and how to become sustainable.
It has a vision, a mission statement and a set of values that its members have contributed to defining, and the next step may be for it to become a community interest company. “What we want is for Tech4CV19 to be a host for the whole health tech community,” Nicola says.
“We hope it can be a peer-to-peer think-tank for the digital health and care space, a 24-7 online expo, the custodian of a single, trusted directory of provision, a broker for partnerships, a place where experts can offer mentoring and support, and a space in which colleagues can inspire one another.”