Developing a digital health strategy for all

Digital health has the potential to power the local economy, but it needs close collaboration between NHS leaders and industry, says Michael Wood, Head of Health Economic Partnerships at the NHS Confederation

The nature and extent of local strategic economic planning in England has brought mixed results. In such a heavily centralised country it is perhaps not surprising that many local strategies have tended more towards glossy marketing brochures aimed at persuading government of the need to throw some money their way, rather than an honest, evidence-based appraisal of what is needed to develop that economy.

For Local Industrial Strategies to succeed, they need to convince not only government of their worth but those leaders on the ground whose time, energy and demands can often make the difference.

As someone who works in the health service this last point is particularly pertinent. Health-associated industries such as life sciences, digital health and MedTech are a clear priority for UK PLC and have long featured in LEP Strategic Economic Plans.

Despite this, very few NHS leaders would be aware of the potential for collaboration, yet alone consider themselves active partners in developing the local research and industrial base.

When it comes to Digital Health, Leeds City Region is clearly the exception. As the new sector report commissioned by Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership and partners outlines, the potential for digital health to power the local economy is already well understood.

In a region renowned for MedTech and digital health solutions, Leeds City Region is the focal point with 63% of all health-tech eco-system businesses, 70% of total employment and 71% of revenues. Leeds City Region firms contribute 93% of employment in digital health across Yorkshire and the Humber.

The economic assessment reflects positively on Leeds City Region’s assets and clusters and is confident it will continue to lead the development of the national digital health industry, grow its own business base and attract significant levels of academic and health research funding.

What is more, with several national NHS HQs - including NHS Digital - an active Academic Health Science Network (AHSN) and a strong local leadership group shaped by the Leeds Academic Health Partnership, the report states that ‘no other region is as well placed to unlock the potential’ of digital health.

Of course, more can be done. As if to echo my starting point, the report states there is considerable scope for public intervention that supports collaboration on digital health between industry and the NHS, between industry and eco-system assets such as teaching hospitals and universities, and between private sector businesses themselves.

To maximise this economic potential through local collaboration we must have a social purpose.

Regional productivity levels remain stubbornly below the national average, with many districts facing multiple deprivation challenges in relation to income, employment, education and training, and health. Addressing inclusive growth is critical and this is the lens through which our NHS leaders will view both success and their own subsequent involvement and resourcing.

In many ways the potential for partnership working between Leeds City Region and the York, North Yorks and East Riding LEPs crystalises both the challenge and opportunity for a new economic strategy powered by digital health. How can urban clustering drive new digital solutions to address long-standing challenges to rural health and care provision? How can education and training providers develop courses focused on digital skills? How can use data to support parts of society deemed hardest to reach become less isolated? How can we connect citizens and entrepreneurs to the growing digital health labour market? How can the supply chains of our anchor institutions be adapted to bring tangible local benefit to digital SMEs and others?

If it is asking these questions that will drive further local collaboration around digital health then it will be in answering them that I suspect we will see the subsequent local sector growth.

When it comes to developing strategies for industrial growth, the focus on the lack of a common ‘front door’ to the NHS is one that routinely surfaces. In my experience though, not enough time and focus is first given to understanding how collaboration around a particular sector can derive both economic and health benefits for a given locality.

From what I have read, discussed and seen in recent months, digital health across North and West Yorkshire is that rare example that can bridge this divide.

Michael Wood is Head of Health Economic Partnerships at the NHS Confederation, working with partner organisations such as local and combined authorities, local enterprise partnerships and universities to discuss closer working with the NHS.

He is a member of the independent expert panel brought together by the Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership, working with the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Enterprise Partnership, to help develop their Local Industrial Strategies.

Twitter: @NHSLocalGrowth