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Endemic or not – Changing attitudes are taking us into a new age for healthtech

14 Feb 2022 By Joe Stringer

The coronavirus pandemic has laid-bare the shortcomings of healthcare systems around the world. While 83% of the UK’s population over the age of 12 has received two doses of the vaccine, with over 36 million also receiving an additional booster, this winter the Omicron variant has still pushed the National Health Service (NHS) to breaking point. 

Why? Because it lacks the underlying resilience to cope with anything over a 4% increase in patient demand. This isn’t just a UK story; no system, government or insurer anywhere in the world is ‘getting it right’. But even as the pandemic has exposed the failures in global healthcare, it has opened the lid on an age of unprecedented opportunity. 

I’ve worked in healthcare for over two decades; in that time, I’ve seen incredible innovation. The revolutionary new mRNA vaccine is just one iteration of what can happen when new technology is brought to bear on health. Revolutionary, life-changing technologies are out there — the issue is one of adoption.

While other industries have capitalised on the advantages conferred by technology, healthcare stands some 10 – 15 years behind; but things are changing. It’s a cliche that opportunity lies in every crisis, but it’s true, and we’ve seen it before. In 2007, the global financial crisis prompted wholesale revision of the financial services sector, and something analogous is happening now. 

The pandemic has forced all players in the healthcare industry to truly engage with the questions of when, where and how care is delivered. Clinicians have turned to tech solutions to continue to provide patients with care — and patients themselves have grown accustomed to a new model of remote consultation and self-diagnosis. 

Right now, we stand at the cusp of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring healthcare up to speed with other industries, and meaningfully engage with the benefits technology stands to offer. For founders in healthtech, things have never been more exciting.

Way beyond telehealth and testing

During the first lockdowns, telehealth became the short-term ice breaker for our sector. From February to April 2020 utilisation increased 78-fold.  The other immediate winners in its wake were the associated (but fairly rudimentary) messaging platforms and home based testing businesses.  While the quality and sophistication of these platforms varies, what should be as exciting from a founder’s perspective is the response of other stakeholders. 

The UK General Medical Council (GMC), for example, were quite quick to provide guidance to medical practitioners (particularly GPs) on how remote diagnosis and consultation would be treated in terms of potential claims and ethical standards, essentially saying ‘we have your back’.  NHSX, the national body responsible for accelerating technology innovation stepped up the funding available for various solutions that may, over time, help to reduce our reliance on overstretched staff.  And for the first time I think I can remember, I heard people saying they now use the NHS app for more than just covid passports — although on this point we also scored a major own goal by launching a separate covid app rather than channeling everyone towards the NHS one.

In other words, institutional resistance to the adoption of new technology is yielding in the face of urgent demand, and even the most cynical of pre covid naysayers now recognise that technology simply has to play a greater role if we are to avoid spending an unsustainable % of our GDP on our health.

At present, telehealth is only able to resolve a fraction of the total number of issues it is used to address, and over 30% of patients still require in-person consultation.  For remote solutions to reach their full potential they will need to be bundled into an integrated package of technology and innovations. Daunting, yes, but more importantly a moment for pioneering founders to step up to the plate.

Our collective challenge is to reframe healthcare delivery; to bring it beyond the walls of the surgery, hospital or medical practice and ‘through the door’, preferably before Amazon does it first. The rewards for individual founders are great — for global healthcare, they’re even greater.

Within the Octopus Ventures portfolio, companies such as Big Health have pioneered the use of digital therapeutics in the mental health space. Ori Biotech is revolutionising cell and gene therapy with its manufacturing platform. 

Elsewhere, companies such as Automata, which utilises robotics to streamline the bio lab environment, are revolutionising health activities beyond treatment. Digital innovations in point of care diagnostics, fertility treatments and the convergence of healthtech and fintech, are shifting the parameters of accessibility — and affordability. 

Against this context, it falls to founders to work collaboratively. The path to digitalisation will lie through ‘bundling,’ drawing together different innovations from across the space in a way the end user may never be conscious of.

Through partnerships, ‘co-opetition’ or just old-fashioned M&A, founders stand to reshape healthcare systems around the world — pushing adoption beyond telehealth and towards solutions that have, until now, belonged more to the world of science fiction than reality. 

Building unicorns

Over the past 15 years, healthtech has gone from nascent, to active, to huge. While the UK and US have, historically, dominated the space, the level of innovation is growing exponentially around the world, with Healthtech Unicorns emerging from Poland to India. 

While publicly-funded bodies may struggle to justify the financial risks inherent in backing healthtech innovation, early stage investors are ready – and waiting – to support pioneers as they bring game changing new solutions to market.  As the UK’s most-active healthtech investor, the Octopus Ventures team recognises the role we play in this ecosystem, not just through our investments but in our relationships with health systems, governments and other leading investors around the world.  For example, we are proud members of the UN Health Innovation Exchange, a fantastic forum to bring together some of the best healthtech innovators with buyers not just in the western world but across the global south.

The pandemic has precipitated a once-in-a-generation opportunity for founders to bring life-saving innovations to people around the world. Stakeholders are ready to accept long-overdue changes — but time is of the essence; we don’t have the decades other industries have had to make these changes, we have until the next pandemic. It’s a time for founders to be counted. 

If this resonates with you, and you want to talk more — please get in touch. You can reach me on [email protected]

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