THURSDAY 19 JUL 2018 11:45 AM


Earlier in July, the NHS celebrated its 70th birthday. Launched by then-health secretary under Clement Attlee’s Labour government, Anuerin Bevan, at Manchester’s Park Hospital, the first day of the NHS set the precedent for the 20th century and beyond - first class healthcare, free to all at the point of use.

But, while the fundamental structure and principles surrounding the NHS remain the same as in 1948, its technology and ability to innovate has changed dramatically. From successful organ transplants and body scans in the 1960s and 70s, to more advanced mental healthcare and robotics in the 1990s and 2000s, the organisation’s 70th year brings with it new challenges. For communications professionals, the ability to retain trust in a historic organisation constantly compromised by tight budgets or negative media coverage is key in overcoming these hurdles - not least where the introduction of new partnerships and technology is concerned.

For Cat Desmidt, head of health technology at global communications agency Hotwire, the current environment, though challenging, presents huge opportunity for those working at the forefront of healthcare and technology. While innovation in health is usually slower than other sectors, not least due to the very human element, it is unique in its final effect on the end user. “We are at a really exciting time for health and tech, and where the two come together,” Desmidt explains. “It’s about innovation but innovation with a purpose, and that’s what I’m really passionate about when it comes to health - you just know it’s going to make a difference when it comes to people’s lives and that’s the really lovely thing about this sector.”

With healthcare tech a relatively new direction for Hotwire, the 70th birthday of the NHS presented a prime opportunity to demonstrate the worth of partnerships in the space. Wearables, consumer-led devices and robotics are among the many things being developed by both start-ups and more established healthcare giants. Unsurprisingly passions run high when such change effects the NHS, particularly around pivotal dates such as its founding. But for Hotwire, says Desmidt, the 70th birthday presents an opportunity to communicate the advantages of tech-based health partnerships and innovation in furthering healthcare - and ultimately advancing the NHS.

Desmidt says, “We’re trying to champion and get companies involved in answering some questions around what they feel is important in the NHS, and how tech plays into that. It’s been nice to see that integration between the NHS and technologies, a lot more in the past couple of years since we started the practice as well.” It’s an ongoing trend then, bolstered by the commitment of agencies such as Hotwire in opening up dialogue between the NHS and private companies. Traditionally a tricky area to navigate, Desmidt believes the key is persistence and transparency; for brands and tech companies that want to work more closely with the NHS, there’s a myriad factors to remember.

A fundamental underpinning of the NHS is its human face, which although prone to being lost among the algorithms and functionality of tech, is a core part of its national appeal. “Brands need to remember you’re dealing with a lot of different stakeholders, and it’s important that your message is right and that you have buy-in of each of those stakeholders,” says Desmidt. This includes doctors, nurses and patients, but also communicators at all levels - without them there’s no effective storytelling. Without effective storytelling, effective tech implementation is almost impossible at any level.

“Tell those personal stories about how it’s benefitted a patient,” says Desmidt. “It’s important to tell those stories as a fundamental part of communication, but taking it beyond just the tech and really demonstrating the impact on people’s lives is crucial. You’re not just talking about innovation for innovation’s sake, but really showing why its necessary and how it’s going to be implemented.”

Scale, too, is crucial for the ongoing development of technology in healthcare. Hotwire works with a variety of companies, including healthcare giant Pfizer for its Healthcare Hub, which is led by Dr Hamish Graham and works with industry professionals to realise the potential of health tech startups. Digital-first, the companies in which Pfizer invests aim to improve quality of life for patients through innovative tech solutions. For example Echo, an app which tracks and order medication to the patient’s front door, streamlines the patient-pharmacist-GP process. Crucial to the future of healthcare, companies such as Echo rely on partnerships to deliver an effective service to NHS patients.

“We partner with Pfizer with some exciting start ups, and [they] obviously have all this knowledge about the NHS and can help those startups navigate that massively complex system,” says Desmidt. “Partnerships is part of this moving forward, and part of the NHS moving forward. We don’t have all the skills in the NHS at the moment, and through those partnerships that’s where things will grow.”

Ultimately, says Desmidt, trust always has and always will underpin the successful functioning of the NHS. The benefits of implementing healthcare technology by private companies, while often met with opposition, need simply to be effectively communicated to stakeholders - for the most part, it’s about aiding the NHS through simplifying everyday tasks. Tech can positively impact something as minute as a data set to the implementation of robotic technology in surgery - crucially, it’s about proving its worth.

“It’s more important for health brands to have really clear proof points and to show that the security and safety aspect of it is even more important than ‘normal’ brands,” says Desmidt. “Data is a bit of a dirty word because we’ve been unfortunate to have a few glitches. And I think a lot of that came down to not communicating the ‘why’ in terms of ‘why this is important’, what are the positive implications of sharing your data, and framing the whole story around that ‘why’ and ‘what happens when.’”

While the NHS no doubt faces, and will continue to face, challenges unique to its organisational function, tech partnerships and healthcare innovation see it become more future-proof. For Desmidt, this is largely down to a wider consumer trend in adopting technology. “People have adopted consumer tech a lot more in the past few years, and that’s opened people’s minds about what we can do. We’re a lot more open to it in a way, and big companies are jumping on the bandwagon for it and moving things forward.”

If the NHS is successfully defended against certain political ideology, the next 70 years should welcome as much, if not more, innovation than since that first day in July 1948.

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