It’s hard to fathom the challenge of being Matt Hancock. Britain’s recently-appointed health secretary manages the country’s 70-year-old, state-run healthcare system. The British take enormous pride in their National Health Service (NHS), giving it a long spotlight at London’s dramatic 2012 Olympic Games opener. Get sick in Britain and you can see a doctor, get a scan or even have surgery for free.
Unfortunately the system also depends on tax money that can’t keep apace with an ageing population who need greater care than ever. Its deficit is estimated to be closing in on £1 billion ($ 1.3 billion).
Many believe technology can make the NHS more efficient, and so it has partnered with private companies like Forward Health, a communications tool for clinicians. Others like Babylon Health and Ada Health aim to serve NHS patients at a lower cost, by connecting them with doctors on a video call or even an automated symptom checker.
Some worry that such deals spell the slow-and-steady privatization of the NHS and a move (God forbid) towards a system that looks more like that of the United States. But Hancock believes these partnerships are necessary if the NHS is going to survive.
On Monday he held his first, quarterly meeting in London with a health-tech advisory panel. Its 13 participants came from the world of academia, data science venture investing and startups. Ben Goldacre, its chair, heads Oxford University’s data lab; Jeni Tennison is the CEO of Britain’s Open Data Institute and Roger Taylor chairs the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation.
“I want the U.K. to have the most advanced health-tech ecosystem in the world,” Hancock said in published remarks this week. “That starts with improving the technology and IT systems in the NHS.”
By way of example, Babylon Health got its contract with NHS England more than two years ago, after it pitched its telemedicine service alongside hundreds of other companies. “We’re trying to simulate a marketplace,” Sam Shah, the director of digital development NHS Digital told Forbes in an May 2018 interview.
Shah was on the panel that heard Babylon’s pitch for NHS patients to use its video calling service instead of real-life GPs, and to use its chatbot instead of the NHS’s telephone service.
But for most startups, it’s not easy to plug into the NHS’s dizzying array of 17,000 commissioning groups, who chose how it will spend around $ 165 billion in state money each year.
One new accelerator for health startups, which launched in London in April, is targeting smaller companies whose technology is still too-risky a bet for NHS buyers like Shah. Started by two doctors, Alex Young and James Samaru, it has backed startups like Feebris, which uses machine learning to detect diseases.
Feebris has already conducted a study on roughly 7,000 patients in India and shown its algorithm is largely able to detect pneumonia, said Samaru, but it has struggled to get a contract with the National Health Service. Officials wanted to see where the technology was already being used in the NHS. “It’s an enormous chicken and egg issue,” said Samaru, who adds that this isn’t too surprising for a service treating 1.1 million people a day.
Young and Samaru have largely funded HS themselves, and they’ve raised an additional £150,000 ($ 192,000) from investors with plans to raise more. So far the accelerator has invested in nine companies whose valuations have more than doubled from £6 million ($ 7.7 million) in April to £14.4 million ($ 18.4 million) today, according to HS spokesman Daniel Bartlett. “The NHS is built on sacred ground so it’s been taboo to engage with private sector organisations,” he added.
Hancock might not see it that way. At the very least, he seems to want to turn that around for now.