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Speed to Scale: Harnessing Medical Technologies in providing national resilience

Healthcare Technologies Institute/University of Birmingham

The last six months has been an incredibly busy time for me and my colleagues in the Healthcare Technologies Institute (HTI).  We were allowed to remain open over the duration of the pandemic and have worked on technologies that could in some way enable treatment or prevent infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.  I am very proud to say that we have managed to contribute broadly to the response of the West Midlands healthcare system through the delivery of e-health and telemedicine innovations, personal protective equipment, the development of resuscitation shields, anti-infective nasal sprays and a number of technologies that will shape how we are able to respond to any further challenges that the SARS-CoV-2 virus may present. 

Demand for healthcare tech reached new heights in the pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed significant global challenges that have had major local implications, impacting not only healthcare professionals and patients, but also the growth and development of local businesses.  These businesses have been exposed to rapidly changing markets and have had to adapt to function in a world where physical mobility and consumption patterns are becoming increasingly difficult to predict.

The UK faces major challenges in its capability and capacity to create and mobilise both basic supplies and novel technologies to respond to healthcare challenges. A new investment programme for the region, Speed to Scale will help address the sector needs for: better market intelligence; a need for innovative, flexible regulation; support for SMEs to rapidly scale; expansion of manufacturing capabilities; pioneering use of new technologies, including digital health and precision medicine such as advanced therapies, implantable devices and novel diagnostics.

Local industry has responded quickly to challenges, helping to address many of the problems that have been experienced by healthcare providers in the Midlands (from large hospital trusts to hospices).  I run a project at the University of Birmingham (the Demand Hub) that helps companies and individuals with early stage medical technologies to identify a route to market exploitation of their innovations. More of these projects of this nature are needed. 

Over the course of the pandemic, we have been inundated with companies within the healthcare technology sector who have innovations with potential use in the management of individuals suffering from COVID-19.  These companies range from small, high-technology companies who have developed sensor systems that could be used for remote patient monitoring, right through to large manufacturing firms that are able to produce medical consumables at large scale, locally.   The sheer breadth and depth of the local firms that I have dealt with, have really brought into focus the manufacturing capacity that we have in the West Midlands and more importantly how adaptable this industry-base truly is.  Unfortunately, I have also seen the frustration as these firms try to get their technologies adopted by the NHS, something that has really blunted our capacity to respond.

Ensuring supply chains are fit for future shocks

Something that has been made very clear is that the supply network for personal protective equipment (PPE) and other comparatively cheap consumable items is unable to withstand short-term increases in global demand.  A year ago, it would have been unthinkable that medical professionals would have to think carefully about rationing PPE, but in the height of the pandemic this became a shocking reality, widely reported on in the national and international press.  We must think very carefully about how our supply networks are designed so that we are able to respond to any future system shocks.  

 

If the pandemic continues into 2021, we are likely to see mountains of single-use PPE items for disposal or landfill.  I have seen many single use masks littered around town and city centres and across the countryside.  We need to try and develop safe and reusable alternatives. At the University of Birmingham, we have been working tirelessly with colleagues in King’s College to develop a system that would allow for healthcare providers to economically provide their staff with individualised masks that fit better, function better, and are reusable.  The implementation of these masks in the healthcare setting could be transformative.  Safe, quality-assured, reusable PPE would massively enhance the resilience of our systems, but there are major challenges that need to be overcome before we can roll these solutions out across the NHS.  The majority of these challenges are not necessarily technically difficult, but are focussed around manufacturing economics, the demonstration of quality assurance and distribution. 

The pandemic has also highlighted the true potential of telemedicine and data-enabled healthcare interventions in managing patient health.  There is now growing interest around the creation of tools and processes to enable the remote monitoring and treatment of patients in addition to the automated analysis of CT scans and other patient measurements. The landscape for many companies in this space is even more uncertain, with evolving regulation and continuous ethical challenges.  Specialised support for companies with interests in this area will ensure that the sector is able to grow to meet the demands that have been placed on it.

 

 

The Binding Site Group (“TBS”) is the leading in vitro diagnostics manufacturer in the UK. Based in Birmingham, from where we export our products to over 80 countries (over 90% of our revenues come from overseas), we consistently show the ability to respond to new challenges in various areas of patient diagnosis and management. As a result of the pandemic, together with the University of Birmingham, we developed a highly sensitive, highly specific test for IgA, M and G antibodies to SARS-Cov-2 in record time. It was achieved not only through the talent that lies in UoB and TBS, but the willingness to collaborate openly, sharing ideas and resources to produce a best-in-class product.

We are committed to delivering medical solutions and diagnostic products that will improve patient lives in the most effective way possible. With a boost to the region’s medical technologies sector, through an investment programme such as Speed to Scale and a tailored, systems approach to driving productivity, The Binding Site and our industry collaborators and peers can contribute to ensuring the UK is a leader in the worldwide medical technologies market.” Charles de Rohan, CEO Binding Site

Pivoting the medical manufacturing sector will reap benefits

 In my view, we have responded amazingly well to the COVID-19 pandemic, but we have also learnt lessons that may be able to help us to respond to any future challenges of this magnitude.   We can better harness our very willing manufacturing base to address many of the arising challenges.  The regulation and manufacturing constraints that come with working in the medical technology sector prevent companies from contributing as much as they may have been able to.  We need to create a regional focus via the Speed to Scale Region programme that allows for companies who can contribute to the development of medical technologies to get the assistance that they require to speed their transition into a healthcare setting.  If we are able to achieve this, we will be able to build resilience into our regional infrastructure by enabling companies to pivot their manufacturing capacity at critical times. 

There are also great economic benefits for scaling our current medical technologies regional industry base with predictions of increasing employment by over 6,000 new jobs, increased turnover for the region of over £2.5bn and a boost for the UK annual market turnover.

The proposed Speed to Scale Region Programme is a welcome call to enable a shift in the way healthcare technologies can be developed and rolled out. Looking beyond the pandemic, such a central focus will enable the growth of the medical technology sector across the region.

Professor Liam Grover
Healthcare Technologies Institute
University of Birmingham

For further information about the Medical Technologies Hub and the Speed to Scale Region programme please contact: ssr-enquiries@contacts.bham.ac.uk

This blog is one of a series focusing on the core elements of the bid put into central government for a Speed to Scale Region for the West Midlands focusing on the potential benefits and outcomes for jobs and economic growth. For an overview of the programme, please see the first blog or listen to the podcast. Further information is also available here.