Smoothing the way to better health Innovation Agency acts as a bridge between innovative small and medium enterprises and the NHS

Around half a million people in the UK are unaware they are suffering from atrial fibrillation (AF) – the most common form of irregular heart rhythm – which puts 20% of them at risk of dying from a stroke or living the rest of their lives severely disabled.

This means there is a further health time bomb awaiting the NHS who are already spending £2.2bn annually on stroke survivors left with disabilities and needing treatment. Yet an ongoing initiative across the UK has revealed the optimum way to find the hidden army of potential victims, then subsequently ensuring they receive the correct medication, so dramatically reducing the threat of strokes among the group still most at risk from AF.

This national programme is being driven by the 15 regional Academic Health Science Network (AHSNs) which were set up five years ago to accelerate the spread of innovation in the NHS. Overall the AHSNs have set themselves the objective of identifying 130,000 new cases in the next two years, so preventing at least 3,650 strokes and saving the NHS £81 million in associated costs.

So successful has the outcome been judged that NHS England has recently awarded the AHSNs 6,000 additional pulse testing devices to distribute in their regions. It was the Innovation Agency, the AHSN responsible for the North West Coast, which was one of the first to promote the highly portable heart monitoring devices to detect AF by trialling them in its region – an approach which was quickly adopted by all AHSNs.

With a population of four million people to reach in its vast catchment area, the Innovation Agency has not only been recruiting traditional health professionals such as GPs, but also Cheshire Fire and Rescue, housing associations and even individuals as AF Ambassadors to use the portable devices in their campaign to discover those who are suffering from the potentially life-threatening condition.

AF Ambassadors include Cheshire Fire and Rescue.

In the last four years, this has led to the Innovation Agency – which has offices in Daresbury, Liverpool and Preston – to test more than 20,000 people, so identifying 7,000 people at risk and potentially preventing 500 strokes.

The innovative technology used includes a tiny smartphone attachment that works via an app; and a diagnostic baton which also detects problematic heart rhythms, innovative products which provide a more sensitive and specific pulse check rather it being done manually, reducing the necessity for costly and often unnecessary 12-lead ECGs.

Dr Julia Reynolds, Head of Programmes and lead for AF at the Innovation Agency said: “In our region there are around 20,000 people who are unaware they have irregular heart rhythms and of the dangers that this can pose to their health.

“We have highly effective treatments that can prevent these strokes, but early detection is key. Using cost-effective technology, the NHS will now be able to identify people with irregular heart rhythms quickly and easily. This will save lives.”

And this is just one of the 90 innovative product led schemes which the agency has spread through the North West coastal region, close to a third of the total of 330 introduced throughout the national AHSN Network.

The Innovation Agency is regarded as a success story within a success story, and that is why the AHSNs have recently had their collective licence extended for a further five years. What the AHSNs have shown to be their USP is in acting as the interface to smooth the way between innovative SMEs working in the health sector and the complex market that is the NHS itself.

Companies like 3D LifePrints which is transforming surgery in three Liverpool hospitals with its 3D models of patients’ body parts, using images from MRI and CT scans which are then printed in a variety of materials which mimic the texture and density of bone and tissue.

The 3D printed models allow clinicians to better understand the patient’s problems pre-surgery, enabling them to perform surgical simulations as well as test the size and placement of any medical devices needed. In addition to improving outcomes, the use of these models can significantly shorten theatre times and so save costs.

Consultant cardiologist Dr Rob cooper with a ‘3D LifePrint’ - helping to transform surgery in Liverpool.

3D LifePrints came to the attention of the Innovation Agency due to their presence in the Innovation Hub at the world-famous Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, a centre which they part-funded. Since then, the Innovation Agency has been instrumental in 3D LifePrints’ expansion to two other major local hospitals through their introductions and by match-funding initial programmes.

Such has been the impact of 3D LifePrints at Alder Hey that consultant surgeon Iain Hennessey, the Clinical Innovation Director, described its potential to revolutionise healthcare as “immense.”

Meanwhile, the Innovation Agency’s interest in spreading the innovation word has not been confined to disruptive technologies such as 3D printing but has also embraced the potential impact of the now everyday phone app.

This has seen the agency throw its not inconsiderable weight behind health app specialist Dave Burrows and the work his team at Damibu had done in Cheshire to reduce the number of children under five being taken to hospital A & Es unnecessarily by panic-stricken parents.

Known as Catch (Common Approach to Children’s Health), it provides concerned parents with NHS approved information, so they become aware of when their child needs medical treatment or when self-care would be more appropriate.

'Catch' - providing concerned parents with NHS approved information.

A follow up study showed that the number of 0 to 5-year olds discharged from the same A & E with nothing but basic information and advice over a four-month period after the app was launched was 538,155 fewer than the same period the previous year.

Now, following this success, the Innovation Agency has continued in its mission to spread the innovation benefits by promoting the app along its North West coast region and nationally through the national AHSN Network. Dave Burrows has also been named as an NHS Innovation Fellow, a significant honour in recognition of the app’s potential, which is part of the NHS Innovation Accelerator programme.

The momentum behind the Innovation’s Agency’s flagship AF campaign continues unabated, with its recruitment programme being extended deep into the community it serves. Kim Hughes, a mother of two who suffered a stroke at the age of 33, has recently joined the growing ranks of AF Ambassadors. “It’s not easy getting over a stroke, so if I can help to prevent just one person having one, then it’s worth it every time,” she says of her new role.

About the Innovation Agency

The Innovation Agency, like the other AHSNs across the UK, is managed mainly by NHS professionals and staff from associated industries which means they are not only able to open the correct door to the vast NHS market and its silo style budgets but also enable companies to understand what is expected of them on the other side.

Lorna Green, the Chief Operating Officer at the Innovation Agency, spent five years with the NHS before working in a variety of roles within industry providing both help and finance for innovative SMEs seeking to do business with her former employers.

She has an in-depth understanding of the needs of both the NHS and the innovative health companies attempting to break into what is a huge but cash starved marketplace where patient care is paramount. It has become a key role of the agency to evaluate the innovations in order to match their potential to the unique requirements of the NHS.

“The NHS is more receptive since we came on board because we act in a neutral broker role,” says Lorna Green. “It is not a case of someone selling them some something. We understand it is about matching needs and solutions, the NHS doesn’t know what is out there, they don’t have the time to research, so we bring the opportunities to them.

“We have won the latest BioNow award for supporting businesses and have just had our licence renewed for five years. We’ve also been given extra funding from the Office for Life Sciences to deliver Innovation Exchanges, which means all the AHSNs working together more closely than ever to spread great innovations. That in itself is a vote of confidence, proving we are making a difference.”

This article appeared in FutureNorth's 'Life Sciences Edition' in The Times, 26 June 2018. See more online here and download a PDF here.

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