Technology startups are gaining traction in the NHS as a result of the coronavirus crisis, in what some describe as a “revolution” for the health service.
Entrepreneurs say bureaucratic caution has been swept away to allow them to bring digital products into the health and social care system.
“It feels as if someone’s taken the handbrake off the NHS,” says Tom Wicher, chief executive of booking software provider DrDoctor, which has gained three big hospitals as clients since the start of the outbreak.
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“It’s like it’s been given permission to go fast.”
Remote working startups are among those benefiting.
Pando, which allows healthcare workers to share sensitive medical messages and photos, claims to have seen an increase of 700% in its daily download rate since the start of the outbreak, with new users coming from across the NHS.
“There is something of a revolution happening,” says Dr Rhyddian Harris, a former clinician who works as a product manager for Pando.
“The telemedicine agenda has been accelerated by about 10 years, simply because it is not safe or practical to do much of the traditional medical model.”
At the start of February, remote healthcare startup accuRx built a video consultation tool for GP practices and NHS trusts, to go with its existing text message product.
Two months later, accuRx co-founder Jacob Haddad says it’s been used more than one million times.
“There’s been huge pressure to change how primary care is delivered and how GPs see patients,” he told Sky News.
“A year’s worth of change has just had to happen in a couple of weeks. That’s why we’ve seen such vast adoption.”
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GPs using the system say they’re unlikely to go back to the old method.
“We went from four to five weeks ago maybe only doing 20 or 30 online consultations a day to now doing over 100 online consultations a day,” says Dr Simon Brownleader, chair of the Tower Hamlets GP Care Group.
“It’s been revelatory.”
Doctors using Pando’s app, which is free for initial users and all NHS staff, although it does have a paid tier for heavy users, share the enthusiasm.
“Without it we’d be struggling as there’s no easy way to pass information between teams,” says Dr Richard Muswell, an air ambulance doctor at Bart’s Hospital in London.
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Campaigners caution against moving too fast if it compromises the long-term future of the NHS.
“Bureaucracy has a really important role to play in terms of safety, and safety is paramount,” says Cat Hobbs, founder of We Own It, which campaigns for public ownership of public services.
“This crisis is going to take some time to sort out and we need to be building up the capacity of the NHS while we do that, not having contracts awarded to private companies without a proper process.”
In recent months, high-profile NHS contracts have been handed to firms including Google, Amazon and controversial Silicon Valley startup Palantir, which was awarded the contract without a tender and is working for £1.
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Yet although these deals have been the focus of media attention, a leading investor in public sector startups warned that the successes of technology companies did not represent the full picture.
“The crisis has proven double edged for startups that support public services,” said Daniel Korski, co-founder of Public.
“On the one hand there is more appetite than ever before to deploy new technologies and startups have been given many opportunities especially across the NHS.
“On the other hand the government has in many cases – and for much larger contract sums – turned to existing incumbents, extending relationships that probably should by rights have ended.”
On 16 April, outsourcing giant Capita extended a contract with the Ministry of Justice to provide electronic tagging, worth £114m over three years.
In February, a Capita security worker who took bribes from criminals to remove their electronic tags was jailed for seven years.