Alexa, we want Yorkshire SMEs to be leading digital health revolution

By Dave Baldwin

Alexa, is Amazon the future of healthcare in the home? The new collaboration between the NHS and the US tech giant might suggest so. The pairing of Amazon’s market-leading voice assistant with expert advice from the NHS is a very good expression of how technology can be applied to healthcare. In the link-up, Alexa’s algorithms will use medically verified information from the NHS to answer medical questions and provide guidance. “It means people will know when they should see their GP or go to A&E. And when, and how, they can treat common illnesses with the help of a pharmacist,” said Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who is keen for the health service to build similar partnerships with Google, Apple and any other tech developers.

The digital revolution has swept through industries like media, retail and financial services, empowering consumers and shaking up incumbents. But there is a big difference between downloading a song, buying an ebook or using a banking app and the digitised delivery of care. Real health and wellbeing is at stake. How do we know that new technology works? How do we know it is safe? Where are the checks and balances? These questions are vital for patients, clinicians and commissioners. They are also important for developers, whether big or small, which need compelling answers to expand their digital health services in an emerging industry.

High quality research is hugely important. With this in mind, we welcome the new £135m investment from the National Institute for Health Research for 15 new Applied Research Collaborations (ARCs), which will join up universities, innovators and local authorities to solve some of the biggest issues facing health and social care over the next five years. I’m delighted to say that our district will host the Yorkshire and Humber ARC. The Bradford Institute for Health Research, part of Bradford Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, will receive £9m in funding to prioritise research into a number of health issues including older people with frailty, healthy childhood, urgent care and mental ill health.

Health Minister Nicola Blackwood said: “As the population grows and demand on the NHS increases, it is paramount we develop the next generation of technologies and improve the way we work to ensure the NHS continues to offer world-leading care. The UK has a proud history of cutting edge health research and by supporting the great minds in health and social care, this funding has the potential to unlock solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing healthcare and revolutionise the way patients access treatments in the future.”

Lord Willis, who co-authored a recent report into the future viability of the NHS and social care, is chairing the Yorkshire and Humber ARC strategy board. He said:  “We are a Silicon Dale of health research in Yorkshire with some of the leading centres of excellence across Sheffield, Bradford, Leeds and York. The new ARC will ensure our NHS and social services are able to improve effectiveness and impact to benefit our patients and their families.”

Professor John Wright, director of the ARC, told The Yorkshire Post the new centre would help “translate research into patient impact” and play a transformational role in finding out which technologies are useful for the NHS and can benefit the public health. He said the centre will harness public sector data and use the insights gleaned to put the emphasis on intervention rather than treatment. “Prevention is better than the cure,” added Prof Wright.

The Government has correctly identified that embracing innovation in healthcare can help create high-skilled and well-paid jobs and support the growth of the UK health tech sector. This is why Mr Hancock wants to open up the health service to innovators from business, academia or overseas and make it easier to get good ideas into work in the NHS. The opportunity for Yorkshire and Humber is significant with world-class strengths in health research. Our region has some glaring health inequalities that must be tackled. Our universities and our innovators are producing regular breakthroughs in life sciences. We need to make sure our SMEs get a helping hand into the health economy so the spoils don’t all go to Amazon and co.

• Dave Baldwin is chairman of Bradford Economic Partnership and chief executive of Burnley Football Club

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