When clinicians at Western Sussex Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust sought to become the first in the country to be able to predict when patients were at risk of one of the UK's most deadly conditions, the hospital turned to a small specialist UK company to enter into what would quickly become a strong collaboration.
The aim: to allow doctors and nurses for the first time to be alerted to every patient at risk of acute kidney injury, a devastating and costly condition currently linked to 100,000 deaths in England’s hospitals every year.
The high impact and fast moving project is an example of precisely what can be done when clinicians combine their research and clinical knowledge with innovation from a small but focused UK small to medium sized enterprise (SME); a company that was able to quickly develop and adapt its technology to help doctors and nurses tackle one of the country's two immediate national clinical priorities.
It is also an example of the government recognising the real value of such an NHS-SME partnership, with the Department of Health, through the Small Business Research Initiative, injecting cash to help the project move forward at pace for the wider benefit of the NHS.
Drawing on SMEs to meet grand NHS challenges
When the NHS combines the globally envied commitment and capability of its people with the genuine passion for achieving results that is seen in many of the UK’s small firms, the impact on care as well as wider ambitions can be, and has been, phenomenal.
SMEs, which are seen by government ministers as crucial to economic growth, offer the NHS the means to create innovative best of breed solutions. When combined, these solutions can help address the NHS’s broader needs and its agenda for change. This is about working together to allow the NHS to address the larger challenges being faced. In the case of West Sussex, the delivery of safer care, which as health secretary Jeremy Hunt continues to point out, also amounts to more effective, efficient and affordable care.
SMEs offer the NHS a great opportunity for innovation, and to solve pressing and specific problems in parallel, and quickly, where projects are delivered concurrently and in weeks and months, rather than years. Contrary to some opinions, SMEs can, and do, work together well, and work to deliver integrated interoperable solutions.
But in many cases today, hospitals seem to be overlooking this approach, in favour of often very costly offshore software giants and their systems - using a one size fits all approach, rather than looking to the local market for solutions that respond in a specific, agile, iterative and cost-controlled way.
What drives this isn't always clear, but once a hospital becomes involved in a very large project, it can quickly become too big to abandon - too big to fail. A hospital spends the first multiple-millions and it then becomes too late to back out, even if the signs are that the project is going to run well over budget and consume massive resources over a number of years that might otherwise be invested in smaller, high impact projects that deliver value fast.
The single solution vs best of breed argument is certainly not new. Yet the term best of breed does define itself well, and challenges the customer to focus, and define what they really need to meet their needs, and in what priority order. Forward thinking hospitals are now taking the opportunity to embrace a competitive marketplace, creating a healthy local environment for collaboration, where they can utilise responsive SMEs, within a community of aligned interests.
These hospitals are looking to SMEs as true partners that are equally dedicated to delivering the best outcomes for their NHS. They are working in partnership with companies that live and breathe the NHS and understand the sophistication of people, process and technology needed for success within the NHS.
This joint understanding and partnering will become ever more important as we seek to ensure that the information needs of an increasingly joined up health and social care sector are met and the potential for this realised. There is a huge reservoir of knowledge in the SME community that has been operating to date in separate markets that can be unlocked and joined up.
SMEs must play their role in making collaboration happen
The Five Year Forward View is moving ahead, and we are getting ever closer to milestone digital deadlines. The NHS has an ambitious vision for the future. SMEs are uniquely well placed to bring confidence to that larger programme by delivering immediately, learning quickly through agile methodologies, - delivering improved patient outcomes, benefits to healthcare professionals and increased digitisation faster.
Of course, it is not only down to the NHS and individual NHS organisations to make SME involvement a reality. Clearly the NHS needs to recognise how to work well with smaller businesses and ensure they have the opportunity to compete for projects, but SMEs must understand the nature of the NHS. They must recognise that things take time in the NHS. There is no magic bullet to change that. The NHS demands evidence, regardless of how good an idea a potential supplier may have. All SMEs need to invest in the NHS, and be in this for the long term.
Making the most of national assets
The prize for making collaboration work is too great to ignore. The NHS and the UK SME base represent two of the country's most valuable assets, which through effective partnering can be not only mutually supportive, but can harness real innovation to make a very significant difference to the future of the NHS and also the broader UK economy. Indeed we are already witnessing these two assets exporting such innovation around the world, enhancing the brands of the NHS and British industry to the benefit of the NHS and the wider economy.
What NHS organisations and UK SMEs are achieving together is truly remarkable.