Highland Marketing co-founders Mark and Susan Venables have been working with health tech for a long time. Recently, they’ve seen signs that there’s a growing perception that this is a sector with limited appeal; something the right communications approaches can help to dispel.    

Is healthcare boring? Is technology dull? If you put them together, is health tech a sector with little appeal? These might seem strange questions for Highland Marketing to be asking.

After all, we have been working in the healthcare IT field for well over twenty years and we are as committed to finding ‘health tech to shout about’ – and shouting about it – as we were when we set out.

However, we are asking, because there seems to be a growing perception that health tech isn’t that great. You can see it in the general media, which rarely covers a digital health story, unless it’s a negative one. You can see it in the comments on the health tech stories that are covered, which tend to be uniformly negative.

And you can see it in the challenges that health tech companies report in finding staff – particularly young people, at the start of their careers. We think the answers to our questions are no – but let’s run through them, point by point.

Is healthcare boring?

The case for: The NHS is in deep trouble. There are daily headlines about long waits for ambulances, A&E, elective treatment, GP appointments, mental health and dental services, linked to staff and funding shortages that will not be improved by the cost of living crisis. And if the NHS is in a bad way, social care is far worse.

This sense of perpetual crisis can be exhausting – many reports say healthcare staff are on their knees after working through the Covid-19 pandemic and more than a year of its aftermath. It’s also boring – who wants to enter or stay in sector that seems to have nothing to offer but grind in deteriorating conditions?

The case against: Traditionally, medicine has been a high-status profession, and the NHS has been a valued employer. Covid-19 proved the value of both; and more recent challenges don’t affect that underlying reality. Healthcare makes a difference, in a way that other service industries just don’t. Plus: there are ways to address those challenges – some of which involve technology.

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Is technology boring?

The case for: Technology doesn’t have the buzz that it did twenty years or even a decade ago, when companies were developing systems that revolutionised work and communications, and internet 2.0 was ushering in the age of social media. In fact, there’s probably more negative coverage of the impact of the digital revolution these days than there is positive.

Meantime, it can feel as if healthcare IT is stuck in a time-warp. Twenty years after the National Programme for IT in the NHS was launched to roll-out enterprise-wide systems to trusts, barely a handful have electronic patient record systems that pass muster with NHS England’s transformation directorate.

Even then, media coverage focuses on old IT making doctors’ lives a misery, crashes, and hacks. While, outside the primary care space, the kind of patient-facing, self-serve apps that are common in commerce and banking are so rare that when a hospital sets up an appointment management portal it sends out a press release.

The case against: The NHS does need to sort the basics, particularly in the acute sector; and when it’s done that, it needs to sort out interoperability – or getting EPRs to work with other IT systems, including region-wide data platforms and shared care records.

However, this could be the moment that happens. The NHS England transformation directorate has set targets to get all trusts up to a defined level of digital maturity, and it’s done that because it sees IT as one way of addressing those challenges in health and social care.  

EPRs hold out the promise of giving integrated care systems more information about demand, of helping trusts to plan flow and discharge, of giving clinicians access to decision support and communications tools, and of supporting creative thinking at all levels about how to deliver services in new ways.

So, if healthcare makes a difference to people, then technology makes a difference to healthcare. In addition, even familiar systems have changed out of all recognition over the past two decades.

Highland Marketing is working with modern, modular EPR providers that think interoperability and usability from the get-go, and with imaging and pathology providers that are rolling-out cloud-based systems that make the significant investment that cloud-providers have made in security and AI available to their customers.

We are working with shared care record providers, who have cracked the interoperability challenge and are now offering data analytics, care-coordination, and patient access ideas to integrated care systems. And we are working with new entrants with cloud-first, mobile-first solutions that support concrete examples of how to deliver services in new ways, such as virtual wards and remote monitoring.

Are health tech comms dull?

The case for: Some areas of the health tech market are dominated by large companies that perhaps don’t work as hard at their communications as they could. It can be hard to find out what is happening on the ground and whether systems have been deployed and are delivering what was planned; which hardly breeds confidence.

In newer areas, it can be notoriously difficult for new entrants to make an impact. There are NHS organisations at all levels that take pride in adopting innovation, but they are few and far between. Procurement and deployment timescales are long.

The practical impact is that it can be difficult to inform organisations or individuals about ideas that could make a difference, and for those ideas to gain traction. And then, it can be hard to build a pipeline of news announcements, case studies, and media coverage.

Health tech has its own, very dedicated, online press and supports two or three big conferences and exhibitions every year; but even when a pipeline is established, less-specialist media can be hard to engage. Consumer-focused campaigns can be problematic in an industry in which professionals and service users use IT that is bought for them, rather than IT they buy themselves.

The case against: If the NHS is going to deploy technology that will address the big challenges it is facing, it needs to know what is available; and politicians, professionals and patients need to know that IT is a good investment that can deliver.

The only way to make both cases is to find ways to run effective marketing, communications and PR campaigns. Highland Marketing was established as a full-service agency, so it can get clients’ messages and successes across in different ways, from written papers, opinion pieces, case studies and releases, to webinars, video, and social media.

When these campaigns land, they really matter. It’s not just clients that think so; organisations and individuals value the chance to show off the health tech they have adopted and the impact it is making.

This summer, Highland Marketing delivered an integrated campaign around video that demonstrated the impact that a shared care record is having in care homes; and it was wonderful and refreshing to see how staff, families and patients were not just willing but eager to talk about the benefits.

New ideas for delivering healthcare services, using new, digital technology, also open up avenues for new forms of communication. Right now, we are building a website for a new client, as the foundation for a campaign to explain the benefits of their services and workflow tools.

We are developing a campaign built around a live webinar for one of our clients; a new entrant to the market with a platform that can be used for both MDT meetings and patient care co-ordination. And we are about to start scoping a campaign for a client that hopes sponsorship will make it more affordable for trusts to take up its patient-facing services.

Healthcare makes a difference to people, tech makes a difference to health, and comms make a difference to health tech

So, if healthcare makes a difference to people, and tech makes a difference to health, then effective, modern communications make a difference to health tech. That is what has inspired Highland Marketing from the outset: and it is certainly not boring.

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