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Innovation (NHS)

Volume 533: debated on Wednesday 12 October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I requested this debate in order to raise important issues about the ongoing review of how the national health service extracts the full potential from innovative, commercially realisable ideas generated by NHS employees and to seek clarification from the Minister about the scope of the Carruthers review of innovation in the NHS announced this July.

I was led to the subject by my involvement with Odstock Medical Ltd in my constituency, a company that has grown from Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust. OML has pioneered a technique called functional electrical stimulation that produces contractions in paralysed muscles by applying small pulses of electrical stimulation. Having experienced it myself, I can attest that it assists walking. OML has developed a range of neuromuscular stimulators to improve the functional ability of people with neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis. The devices have been developed during many years of collaboration among clinical engineers, clinicians and patients at the National Clinical FES Centre at Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust.

Last year, it came to my attention that, because OML is partly owned by the local NHS foundation trust, under EU rules, it cannot be classified as a small or medium-sized enterprise, and therefore cannot access grants and support through normal Department for Business, Innovation and Skills channels. That seems ludicrous. I met the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), who has responsibility for small business, along with Professor Ian Swain from OML. Little progress could be made, although attempts were made to access specific funds and schemes. It is a systemic failing.

Anxious to overcome that barrier and explore other aspects of innovation in the NHS, more recently, I met with Alun Williams, the CEO of NHS Innovations South West, who has an office in my constituency and is here today. Alun is wholly committed to the NHS and is passionate, as am I, about finding ways to develop streams of revenue for the NHS. I thank him for his support and advice as we have discussed the subject in recent months.

My key concern is this: as populations age, as the cost of drugs and treatments rises faster than inflation and as medical science, thankfully, finds ever more treatments for human ailments and medical conditions, the NHS must be more radical in exploiting the bright ideas of its staff to ensure that the commercial potential of those ideas are realised fully by the NHS.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this enormously important debate. I was brought to the subject by NHS Innovations South East. Does he agree that NHS staff can come up with innovations—examples cited to me include improvements in child protection investigations and adolescent mental health programmes—that do not readily or easily translate or crystallise into commercial benefit? Is it therefore not short-sighted for the Government to insist, as I understand they do, that innovation bodies must be totally self-supporting commercially?

I certainly contend that there are significant pockets of innovation. The challenge is bringing those ideas to their full commercial potential and getting them into the NHS so that they are cheaper for the user. The adoption and uptake of NHS-grown ideas is not wide or deep enough, few hospitals showcase their ideas and the wider benefits are not really felt across the NHS. Some ideas, when fully exploited, might realise significant streams of revenue, easing the cost pressures that I mentioned.

The review led by Sir Ian Carruthers, announced at the beginning of July by the Department of Health, will seek in its report next month to inform the strategic approach to innovation in the modernised NHS. However, it must not simply set up another framework or broad aspirations; it must deal convincingly with the gritty realities of what is needed to take a proven idea that has been honed, challenged and assessed by the innovation hubs to its full commercially realised potential.

The report must also recognise that, unless a way is found to invest in such ideas, their commercial potential will be exploited by private sector entrepreneurs who can move more rapidly and access finance more quickly. Intellectual property will thus be patented not by individual NHS trusts, as is desirable, but by the private sector, which will then charge the NHS for products and services at rates that the NHS would rather not pay. I urge the Minister to push the boundaries and ensure that we do not risk allowing the ideas of excellent NHS employees to be lost, thus losing the value and savings that could accrue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Does he agree that, although it is important for the NHS to realise the commercial value of innovation, it is also fundamental to the improvement of patient care that innovations take hold more rapidly? Did he see this morning’s comments by Professor Williams, president of the Royal College of Surgeons, who warned of a 20-year wait before innovations start saving lives if we base innovation progress on previous experience? He cited reduced deaths from bowel cancer as a result of keyhole surgery, which took years to become widespread practice.

I thank my hon. Friend for that extremely helpful intervention. I met Professor Williams last week, and he made that point to me. That is the nub of the matter. If the NHS does not move quickly on such ideas, someone else will, and it will cost more. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The impact on outcomes is negative. We must move matters forward so that the advantages can accrue to the NHS.

It is important to realise that, in the big picture of NHS politics, there is an almost pathological fear of doing anything that could imply the use of the word “cut” or the even more toxic P-word, privatisation. I am not arguing for either, but I am saying that, unless we adopt savvy practices to incubate and develop proven concepts more speedily, I fail to see how the NHS can deal with the increasingly more intense systemic supply and demand pressures that it will face. Efficiency savings and ring-fenced budgets, although welcome, will not be enough to save the NHS and provide the money that it needs to continue in its present form. We need more realism about that and a radical solution that has the potential to create more money.

I recognise that it should not be the NHS’s primary objective to develop income streams from medical devices, new treatments or services. Equally, given that great ideas are an unintended by-product of taxpayer investment in providing a world-class national health service, it would surely be wrong not to look hard at making innovation work to the NHS’s advantage. So many ideas derive from employees whom the state pays quite handsomely.

Furthermore, after initial investment, funding innovation could be self-financing, using royalties from previous successful investment. It just needs to unlock that potential. Alongside producing efficiency savings, this significant reform need not require significant capital outlay at the outset.

It feels as though successive Governments have been so concerned to avoid the tag of allowing the waste of capital on ideas that do not immediately point to a return, or being portrayed as blurring the boundaries of the NHS, that they have not fully established the means and mechanisms of making ideas realise their potential. Lip service is paid to the desire to innovate, but practical measures that make it possible on anything like the scale that is possible are not in place. It is more a question of whether the NHS can afford not to exploit the potential savings and revenue streams presented by these ideas.

I am aware that the current position is not completely bleak. The Minister will be able to cite a pipeline of ideas and he will know that the UK has established capabilities in this field. The medical device sector alone makes a significant contribution to the UK economy, with an industry turnover of £13 billion and 55,000 employees. That industry, however, is generally a supplier to the NHS. We need to move to a situation in which the NHS itself generates devices that can save—with a small s—the NHS from bearing the full commercial costs of products that the private sector has developed in its place. Why is it not possible for the Government to establish an innovation strategy with a real focus on extracting value from the pipeline?

I am not suggesting that there should be centrally driven, random speculative investment of taxpayers’ money in half-baked ideas suggested by any clinician. The regional innovation hubs are already primed to sift ideas. For example, NHS Innovations South West has criteria that each product has to meet before it can receive further assistance. First and foremost, it must bring significant benefit to patients in terms of better outcomes and quality of life. It must also be patentable. The return on investment must meet a minimum threshold and it must be commercially viable—that is, there must be an assessment of a global need for the technology, making it a worthwhile investment for commercial partners.

Once that has been established, the issue is how to develop the ideas to their full potential. Several ideas exist in the south-west. A cancer diagnostic endoscope and meniscus knee repair device are both, subject to completing clinical trials, able to meet the criteria to which I have referred. Given that oesophageal cancer is one of the fastest growing cancers globally and early diagnosis can have a significant impact on savings in the NHS, it is highly desirable that that progresses quickly. The meniscus device should significantly improve patients’ quality of life and postpone the need for an expensive total knee replacement by up to five years, thereby again saving the NHS huge sums of money.

My concern is that it is purely by chance that the private sector has not taken this work further. The current NHS process for capitalising on these innovations is not quick enough. There is limited access to NHS funding, and progress is inhibited by insufficient incentives and enabling mechanisms to encourage trusts to invest in such promising cost-saving technologies. Hospitals exploit these ideas elsewhere in the world and significant royalty streams accrue. They would make a recurring contribution to the much required efficiency savings that the chairman and chief executive of my hospital trust are desperately trying to find at present.

In conclusion, I believe that the NHS is a powerhouse of innovation, but that that is not being harnessed sufficiently to accrue the tens of millions that would be available to individual NHS trusts if a bolder approach were taken by Government. I urge the Minister to consider carefully the potential of the ideas in the NHS and to do all he can to ensure that the scope of the Carruthers review is broad enough to deliver recommendations that will allow the huge value that exists to be realised.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate on what is widely recognised as an important issue for the NHS because of the crucial role that innovation plays in the present and will play in the future. Given his ideas, views and thoughts, he might seek to arrange a meeting, if he has not already done so, with my noble Friend the Earl Howe, who is the Health Minister with responsibility for innovation.

I shall respond by first setting out the Government’s approach to innovation, before looking at the specific issues that have been raised by my hon. Friend. As we all know, and as he has reiterated, we face a significant challenge. Without real change, the cost of health care will grow faster than the rest of the economy. Moreover, the quality of care in vital areas such as cancer will lag behind other countries, and the gap between the best and the worst NHS care will continue to grow. More of the same simply will not do. We cannot afford it and patients do not deserve it. We need, in other words, to innovate, as my hon. Friend has said.

Fortunately, there is a vast reservoir of innovation to tap within the NHS. It has a long history of innovation, invention and research by great people and great institutions. Ian Donald, for instance, pioneered the use of ultrasound in the 1950s. Sir Peter Mansfield’s work led to the MRI scanner in the 1970s. The Sanger Institute developed the first working draft of the human genome in 2000. We continue to lead the way in cutting-edge research, as the recently announced first European trial of embryonic stem cell research at Moorfields eye hospital demonstrates.

The creative spark that kick starts the long and difficult journey from initial idea to widely adopted treatment is a precious and delicate thing. We need to do all we can to encourage that creativity within the NHS—to grow and propagate the ideas that clinicians and others have for the benefit of their patients. While we continue to achieve great things, we must always strive for more.

Innovation does not happen when power is centralised and people are told what to do, so the single biggest thing that we are doing to encourage innovation is to devolve power to clinical professionals, trusting their professional judgment and their desire to do their best for their patients.

Our modernisation of the NHS will encourage innovation in three main ways. First, it will place the patient at the centre of decision-making about their own care—informed, empowered and able to choose the best possible appropriate care—so that providers will have to innovate to stand out. Secondly, it will have a resolute focus on improving health outcomes—publishing the data and rewarding excellence—so that hospitals and others will have a powerful incentive to innovate and improve. Thirdly, it will place power in the hands of local clinicians, thereby getting rid of the huge and wasteful bureaucracy that can strangle and frustrate innovation, and let the knowledge and expertise of clinicians drive innovation locally.

That will lead to a more personalised NHS, with services tailored to patients’ needs; a more integrated NHS, with solutions that tackle inequalities, improve access and deliver care closer to home; and a better quality NHS, with every provider encouraged, rewarded and incentivised to constantly improve outcomes for patients.

There is also a wider economic imperative for innovation. The health care sector, including pharmaceuticals, medical technology, research, equipment and services, directly or indirectly employs hundreds of thousands of highly skilled people in companies, from small and medium-sized enterprises to global giants, generating billions of pounds in revenues, all helping to drive future economic growth. Innovation in health care applies to everyone—scientists, nurses, doctors and managers. In fact, it applies to all those working to deliver better health, better care and better value. We must ensure that innovation is not simply the preserve of elite minds at the top of august institutions, because it is not just about the latest drugs or high-tech pieces of equipment. The spirit of innovation should be part and parcel of every part and every level of the NHS.

One of my favourite examples of innovation in action is a jug—a health care assistant in Milton Keynes decided that patients whose fluid intake needed close attention should each have a bright red water jug. That particular innovation gave ward staff a clear visual reminder of those patients’ specific needs, helped them to better care for patients, avoided the need for drips, reduced the risk of infection, cut patients’ stays in hospital and consequently cut the cost of their care. That is all because of a bright red jug and one very bright idea from a health care assistant.

We have also made a strong and ongoing commitment to innovation through research. The Government’s plan for growth cements our commitment to health care and the life sciences as a force for growth in the economy. The Government’s National Institute for Health Research aims to support outstanding individuals, working in world-class facilities and conducting leading-edge research focused on the needs of patients and the public. We have recently announced a record £800 million in additional NIHR funding for experimental medicine and translational health research. We will also streamline regulation and improve the cost-effectiveness of clinical trials, speeding up the process of translating research into better lives for patients, their families and their carers.

However, no matter how extraordinary the innovation or how miraculous the invention, it is worthless if it is not used, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said. Any innovation that is not widely adopted is a tragic waste. Like many large organisations, the NHS’s uptake and spread of innovation has often been slow. We need to raise our game, as my hon. Friend alluded to. We need to do more to recognise the contribution that innovators and innovative organisations make and to encourage adoption and diffusion across the NHS on a scale never seen before.

In that context, can the Minister say what future he sees for the work presently being undertaken by the regional NHS hubs, especially in the area to which I alluded earlier where there might not be an immediate commercial return?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I will certainly come to that matter during my comments and before we finish the debate.

A substantial amount of work is already under way, including the £60 million that has been invested in regional innovation funds, which support front-line staff to develop and spread new ideas and validate the notion that it is good to challenge the way things have always been done. The funds are massively over-subscribed and have to date given money to more than 300 projects. Further work includes the innovative technology adoption procurement programme, which aims to encourage the NHS-wide adoption of high-impact innovative medical technologies, and the innovation challenge prizes, which reward the ideas that tackle some of our big health and social care challenges, improving productivity and the quality of health care. The first innovation challenge prizes—ranging from £35,000 to £100,000—were awarded in March. Winning entries helped to reduce waste and increase the benefits of medicines, helped people with kidney failure to lead a more independent lifestyle and helped in the early diagnosis of cancer. An expert panel is going through this year’s round of applications and I very much look forward to seeing the results later in the autumn.

There is also much of value in the innovation hubs, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. Identifying, developing and commercialising new ideas within the NHS is a must, and we need to adopt a systematic approach to that. We also need to ensure that all parts of the innovation pipeline—invention, adoption and diffusion—are more efficient and effective. The NHS chief executive’s innovation review will consider that and how we can achieve better value for money.

As announced in “The Plan for Growth,” NHS Global is being developed to help NHS organisations to compete in the global market. NHS Global seeks to build and grow the NHS brand and reputation overseas, enabling the NHS to compete in the international health care market and to exploit the commercial value of its technologies, products and knowledge. In doing so, NHS Global acts as another mechanism to support great ideas generated in the NHS being widely accepted across the world.

In the case of the company mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury—Odstock Medical Ltd—if it has not done so already, I suggest that it contacts the NIHR’s invention for innovation scheme. i4i supports product development and the guided progression of innovative medical product prototypes, and I strongly advise the company to get in touch with it if it has not done so.

The Health and Social Care Bill, now passing through the House of Lords, will place a legal duty on the NHS commissioning board and on clinical commissioning groups to promote innovation and research. Soon the NHS chief executive, Sir David Nicholson, will set out achievable, high-impact recommendations that will inform the strategic approach to innovation that is so important within a modernised NHS. We will open up NHS procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises, simplify the process and challenge them to come up with solutions to problems within the NHS. We have committed £10 million to the small business research initiative.

Innovation can never be mandated and it should never be restricted to a particular group. Innovation in health and social care will come from a wide variety of partners—for example, NHS staff and patients, private companies, the voluntary sector and academia. They all have a crucial role to play in pushing forward the boundaries in developing and dreaming up innovative products and services to meet the ever-increasing demands of a modernised NHS.

Innovation is not easy. It takes more than just a good idea to innovate; it takes courage to speak out against how things have always been. Innovators have to hold and develop an idea often in the face of opposition and keep pushing forward until it begins to bear fruit. I fully appreciate that the process of innovation can be a very frustrating time. We must encourage people, so that they do not become frustrated and give up. They should be able to pursue dreams and ideas that will bring a greater improvement to the general provision of health care and the NHS.

Let us imagine a world without antibiotics, without insulin, without cancer screening. Then let us imagine a world with a cure for cancer or where we can reverse dementia and end heart disease. Without innovation none of that would be, or could be, possible. Innovation is essential for the future of our NHS and for the future of the UK economy. I assure hon. Members that the Government will do everything in their power to continue to promote innovation, so that it can flourish and develop along the lines that we would wish.

Sitting suspended.