Mark Venables, chief executive of Highland Marketing, looks back at some of the key trends in the UK health tech market in 2019, at how they affected demand for the consultancy, content, PR and marketing services it provides, and at how they will play into 2020.
Politically, 2019 was a turbulent year. We had a change of prime minister, a general election, and endless wrangling over Brexit. All of that affected the NHS and the health tech market.
NHS England published the NHS Long Term Plan back in January, but it was unable to push ahead with the People Plan that will support it or with local implementation plans. There is unfinished business on NHS and social care funding, and a desperate shortage of money for capital projects.
In the health tech space, further uncertainty was caused by the arrival of NHSX. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were very few big, infrastructure, software or digitisation projects announced in 2019. Yet despite that, Highland Marketing is on course to have had its busiest year ever.
Consultancy and positioning
One reason is that we have seen companies coming to us for advice and support to make sure they are properly positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that do arise and for the longer term. In March, we announced an alliance with Experiential HealthTech, to raise our capacity to offer strategic consultancy.
This has opened up some significant opportunities. We are now working with some large software suppliers, which can see shifts in their market as the NHS starts to think about forming integrated care services and provider networks, and with infrastructure companies, which want to see where they fit in this emerging picture.
We have also been asked to scope out projects for Europe and the Middle East, which is an area of considerable interest at the moment, because it faces many of the same challenges as other, developed healthcare economies; but has the funding and structure to move faster to address them.
Taking control of communications
As an extension of this, we have seen a shift in communications strategies. We are still putting out plenty of press releases and case studies for clients. But, increasingly, it feels as if vendors want to be in control of their own communications, and not just tied to the procurement/go-live cycle.
As we head into 2020, we have seen existing and new clients approach us to set up and run blogs to support proactive communications campaigns. They want to offer market commentary and product advice and to plug in client stories when they have significant value to add.
Similarly, we are seeing clients questioning the value of going to large events. This has been a trend for some years, because there are so many events in the same space, and event organisers have found it hard to break the mould and offer something different.
However, some of our biggest clients now invest heavily in running their own conferences and user group meetings. That means they can set the agenda, invite their own experts and customers, and be more confident of having the right conversations.
What is new is that Highland Marketing is being asked to provide content services that extend the reach of these events. For the past couple of years, we have offered liveblogging for events. This is popular, because it captures the excitement of the day and creates content that can be used subsequently and on social media.
A new focus on trust
The general election was contentious, but the outcome at least provides clarity for the NHS. The Conservatives set out their spending plans early in the year, and they didn’t really change as we went into the election. There is some more money for hospitals and staff; although there are still big question marks over the capital needed for IT projects.
On that front, it was encouraging to see Matt Hancock reappointed as health and social care secretary and for him to focus on the importance of health tech in his first major speech to Policy Exchange. The acute market is likely to remain challenging in the coming year, but I do expect to see movement in other areas.
One is population health management, as areas get to grips with those long-term plan changes and the other is AI. There has been a lot of interest in the potential of AI over the past couple of years, to the point where concerns have been expressed that it is all just hype and the latest bandwagon to be on.
We need to get beyond that, and there does seem to be a consensus that 2020 could be the year that we see some real, practical use cases coming through.
That will keep the issue of who is collecting NHS data, and what is being done with it, at the front of people’s minds. With so many other issues being fought out in the election, it was interesting that the NHS’ relationship with companies that want to use data cut through.
I think that, as long as it is carefully done, the benefits of collecting and using data should outweigh the downsides. After all, for a long time, the bigger concern has been that a lot of data is collected and then lost in siloes, where it can’t be used even for direct patient care.
However, companies that are moving forward with data initiatives will need to be prepared to operate in an open and transparent way to retain the confidence of the service and the public; and to communicate effectively with all sides to retain trust. So, I would predict that discussion of these issues will increasingly be built into PR and marketing campaigns.
Looking for a cup run
Finally, Highland Marketing was pleased to sponsor the Health Tech Awards 2019, run by the Health Tech Newspaper. We often advise clients to enter awards, and help them with awards entries, because they can be a very effective way of communicating key messages, as well as celebrating success.
We hope these awards will go from strength to strength, so they can help to spread the word about all the great things that are being done in this market. So, we have already signed up for the #HealthTechToShoutAbout category for 2020 to do our bit in supporting them to do that.
Secondly, on a slightly different tack (see what I did there) Highland Marketing was also pleased to step up as the content, marketing and PR partner for the Moore Blatch Silicon Cup in 2019. It is the IT industry’s biggest sailing event and raises money for three great charities.
I’m pleased to say that we were able to make a huge difference to its online and social media presence and to help it to get more boats involved and more money raised. Unfortunately, while everybody on board had a great time, the Highland Marketing boat didn’t do quite as well as we’d have liked. So, in 2020, we are thinking about how we can get our team together earlier to do better next time. I really want us to be on the podium…