Call for NHS bosses to adopt innovation more quickly
- 23 December 2015
- From the section Health
In the cardiac area at St George's Hospital in south-west London, a woman is being given an anaesthetic.
She is having a damaged aortic valve replaced in an intricate procedure which helps people who are too high-risk for open heart surgery.
Consultant cardiologist Dr Stephen Brecker is looking at an impressively detailed 3-D scan of the patient's heart, before scrubbing up.
The wire which gently guides the new valve through the blood vessels is named after him - because he invented it.
It is flexible and has a special curve at the end. His design is now being used every day around the world.
Crucially, this piece of wire costing less than a hundred pounds has vastly reduced the risk of patients' hearts being perforated.
Heart patients died
Dr Brecker told me: "Previously, there were always a few percent of cases where emergency cardiac surgery was required in order to save their life.
"This was in patients previously deemed unfit for open heart surgery.
"The outcomes were variable - some patients died from that complication."
He says he was fortunate to be given time to step back from the frontline to develop his idea.
But the system for innovating in the NHS is more fragmented since the controversial reorganisation took effect in April 2013.
And Dr Brecker is frustrated that his guide wire was sold rather than licensed - he believes this deprived his hospital of an opportunity to earn ongoing income from it.
He said: "Whilst we have ideas and enormous potential, I think as a country we punch under our weight in terms of getting British innovation into the medical mainstream of devices used to treat patients.
"I'm convinced the idea I had wasn't particularly special. Any big hospital will have at least 10 viable ideas that could be taken into the market place if the mechanisms were clear and easy."
Innovation 'takes years'
Innovative projects which the NHS is working on include a technology company teaming up with Alder Hey Children's Hospital, with one of the spin-offs being a "digital aquarium" to help distract nervous young patients.
And GPs are working at A&E units to divert patients who do not need emergency care, and junior doctors have come up with a passport scheme which they believe would help cut agency costs.
But a report from the Royal College of Surgeons last year warned that NHS patients risk missing out on innovation because adopting new procedures or devices can take years.
Even if something has been shown to be effective, there might be a lack of training - or perhaps even a process to encourage widespread take-up.
NHS England says innovation is "woven through" its five-year strategy.
Patients - especially those with long-term health problems - can be highly motivated to innovate.
Having a rare bowel transplant operation because of Crohn's disease meant Michael Seres spent months in hospital. He then joined 130,000 stoma patients in the UK.
Mr Seres said: "This means your bodily waste is collected in a bag. You have to empty it, and you have to let doctors and nurses know how much is in there."
Huge cost saving
After watching internet videos and using a mobile phone battery and sensor strip, Mr Seres came up with a device which helped him and the team treating him monitor the bag's output and therefore his health.
He has no engineering background but now runs his own company, 11 Health, from a business park in Hertfordshire.
His device is doing well in America but less so here.
He added: "Until technology can be prescribed, my device sits there as something that can be bought by a patient. But because a prescription can't be written, it's harder to get adoption by the NHS.
"We've demonstrated a 33% cost saving - and there's a clear clinical need and demand from patients.
"The NHS saved my life and has given me amazing care. But it's frustrating and sad that we don't adopt solutions like this at pace.
"I don't understand why we can't get the process right."
An NHS England spokeswoman said: "Our NHS shares a common challenge with any health system across the world: how you maintain and improve care in the face of rising expectations, changing demographics and constrained resources.
"The catalyst that helps you balance all this is innovation.
"To fail to innovate, to fail to adopt new technologies and ways of working, is a real missed opportunity for our health services and a disservice to patients, because the inevitable consequence is that people will go without the type and quality of care that they deserve.
"Innovation is central to the goals we have over the next few years, and is woven through the NHS strategy - the 5 Year Forward View."