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A role of AHSNs in the health and care ecosystem – Guest Blog

Rob Berry, Head of Innovation at Kent Surrey Sussex AHSN and Commercial Director (Interim) at UCLPartners describes how AHSNs can help companies assess, plan and manage their approach to the NHS and other health and care markets.

Academic Health Science Networks (AHSNs) are now in their seventh year.  Although relative newcomers to the health and care ecosystem, the AHSN Network, comprising 15 AHSNs collectively covering England, engaged with and supported just over 2,500 companies during the twelve months from April 2018 to March 2019.  However, many companies are still not aware of what AHSNs do, why they should engage with AHSNs and what they will gain from that engagement.

Xtrahl Radiotherapy Unit (Courtesy of Barts Health NHS Trust)

NHS adoption can support access to other markets

The NHS is an attractive market for home-grown (UK) companies as well as companies from overseas. To have a product adopted by the NHS is seen as an important endorsement and supports access to other health care markets.  Yet, to quote relatively recent research that reflects the experience of many companies:

“Many promising technological innovations in health and social care are characterized by non-adoption or abandonment by individuals or by failed attempts to scale up locally, spread distantly, or sustain the innovation long term at the organization or system level.” (Greenhalgh et al., 2017)

The research goes on to say that it is possible to foresee risk of failure from the adopting organisation’s perspective.

How does this help health technology companies, the NHS, and patients?

AHSNs understand the extent to which these foreseeable issues could potentially impact on business aspiration and the viability of the business around that product, and can therefore support companies in assessing these factors at an early stage.

One of the biggest challenges faced by companies, especially those new to the NHS but by no means only newcomers, is access to knowledge about the NHS. This knowledge can help them assess the opportunity that their technology might address, how to set realistic expectations of uptake of their product or services over time, and how to assess the level of business opportunity for their product or service.  The consequence of not having this knowledge, in short, is wasted time and effort.  This leads to frustration and dissatisfaction with the NHS as well as lost opportunities to concentrate on options that could work better. This in turn impacts on patients, workforce and, to a degree, the wider economy.

Incubator at Newham University Hospital (Courtesy of Barts Health NHS Trust)

Four distinct areas of activity

AHSNs have been commissioned by the Office for Life Sciences to enable various gaps in knowledge to be addressed.  These fall into four distinct areas as follows:

  • Understanding where priorities for investment of effort have been identified and how to engage with the owners of those priorities. Clarifying what the owner of the priority is looking for (and not looking for) and how to present what they have to them.
  • Signposting to resources that may be needed to support development and evaluation of a product or service.  Typically, for those at the more advanced stage of development that also meet local needs, this involves supporting them in developing their approach to the NHS.
  • Real world validation.  Distinct from small scale, controlled environment testing and evaluation, ‘real world validation’ will help identify practical implementation challenges and costs, whilst demonstrating that the impact claimed can be realised. This in turn supports the fourth area.
  • Adoption and spread of products and services.  The benefit of prior validation should enable faster setup and avoidance of known challenges.  AHSNs have a wealth of experience and relationships essential for connecting or bringing together key stakeholders necessary to support the adoption and sustained use of products and services.

Are all AHSNs the same and will I get a consistent response to my enquiries? 

Commercial teams (those involved in first contact with health technology companies) are reasonably consistent in their approach and are working towards greater consistency.  Commercial team members come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience.  Team sizes and priorities, often influenced by local needs and opportunity, add to variation.  It is therefore unlikely that every AHSN will offer exactly the same opportunities to each company.  This mirrors the variability of priorities in the NHS and importantly provides a greater range of opportunities for companies to find an AHSN that shares a common interest.  This is the challenge we need to continue to improve on.

The Commercial Directors Forum (the leads of each AHSN’s commercial team) has been running from the first year of AHSNs inception.  In this Forum we share insights and experience and have recently agreed to use the same ‘Company engagement form’. This enables companies to set out who they are and what they have, once, for use by all AHSNs.  We have agreed to provide consistent core content for the national events that are promoted under the ‘Bridging the Gap’ heading. A website will be launched in late summer that will bring together key information for companies and provide a single digital entry point for companies wishing to engage with AHSNs.

AHSNs worked with more than 2,500 companies last year

Most companies will have a passing relationship with AHSNs. This usually involves dropping in when they are looking for information and connections, disappearing to work on their business and reappearing months and sometimes years later with a more advanced product. Of the 2,500 companies that worked with AHSNs last year, nearly 200 were confirmed to be in a ‘strategic relationship’ with an AHSN.  Companies working with AHSNs have been successful in achieving contracts through the Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI Healthcare), Innovate UK, securing investment, employing more staff, gaining access to national programmes and growing their businesses.  Examples (case studies) of their experience are available on the AHSN Network website.

With many thousands of companies in the UK and from overseas, with different technologies at different stages of development and for different services, AHSNs are challenged to provide comprehensive services to meet every need.  We do have a broad range of knowledge and insights and often have connections to those, such as for example MedCity, who can answer questions we cannot.

If you have a health technology with potential we would like to hear from you

Having met with many hundreds of companies over my time in Kent Surrey Sussex AHSN and recently with UCLPartners, I believe we can provide useful insights to the vast majority of companies who approach us.  The cost of entry is low.  The first steps of completing an online form and attending a ‘market insight briefing’ are not onerous. We are also keen to hear how we can improve our offer.  If you have a health technology that you believe is for the NHS or wider health system we would like to hear from you.

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