Towards an industrial strategy for digital health

Key points

  • Digital healthcare technology will transform the way healthcare systems keep people healthy

  • The UK currently has no industrial strategy for digital health

  • Our research will put forward a strategy for the UK to support and grow this important sector

In 2017, $5.8 billion of venture capital was invested in digital health companies in the US. That figure highlights the belief held by many that digital innovation is part of the cure for ailing healthcare systems. New technology promises to improve outcomes, expand access, streamline operations, and engage patients in their own care (for more detail, see this previous post). But, in the UK this transformation has yet to fully arrive. Governments have an important role to play in supporting the young digital health industry and enabling patients and health systems to reap its benefits.

The UK develops high-level industrial strategies “to create an economy that boosts productivity and earning power” for important sectors such as automotive, construction and nuclear energy industries. The digital health industry would benefit from a similarly focused policy approach. In our research, we will identify essential components of a digital health industrial strategy for the UK and put forward policy recommendations with a vision to improve healthcare with digital technology.


Image credit: gov.uk

Through our preliminary research we have identified three likely components of a digital health industrial strategy. The first component is clear guidance on evaluation and certification of digital health technologies. Digital products have unique characteristics that differentiate them from hardware medical devices or pharmaceuticals, so new guidance is required. For example, rapid development timelines and opportunities for post-market improvements both may have an impact. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has begun to engage with these issues through its “Health App Briefings”, which present evidence behind particular apps used in healthcare. There may also be lessons to learn by looking abroad, for example the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently initiated a pilot program for “pre-certification” of digital medical devices.

The second component of our strategy is cultivating skills necessary for the development and adoption of digital health technology. Promotion of software development skills overlaps with other aspects of the UK’s industrial strategy, but there may be a need for greater integration with clinical and life science curriculums. And it is not enough to simply promote product development. Healthcare professionals and patients must be trained in their use, potential, and limitations. Digital literacy will be important for the diffusion of these new forms of healthcare technology.

Data sharing is our strategy’s third component. Modern IT infrastructure, primarily electronic health records (EHRs), is unevenly distributed across the NHS. And where these systems do exist they struggle to communicate with each other. This interoperability problem may hold back digital innovation if new digital applications cannot be easily plugged into existing clinical workflows. Access to large amounts of data is also important for Artificial Intelligence applications. This raises issues of patient privacy in addition to technical challenges like data standardization and transmission (as discussed in this previous post).

We hope to explore what success will look like for a digital health industrial strategy. It seems clear that patient outcomes, patient experience and NHS cost savings should factor into the assessment. We believe well-defined measures and targets will be valuable for steering future policy work.

As part of our research, we will build an evidence base from peer-reviewed literature and interviews spanning government, industry and NHS perspectives. Given time and resource constraints, our report will more exploratory than comprehensive of a full digital healthcare industrial strategy. Our intention is to clearly identify important components of such a strategy and communicate their importance to stakeholders in the UK. We hope our work will serve as a starting point to guide business-government collaboration in this space. These findings will be available on Polygeia’s website from Autumn 2018.

Further reading

Global perspective on potential for mobile health technologies to improve health system performance: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/publications/mhealth/prioritizing-integrated-mhealth/en/

Polygeia blog post about data-sharing in healthcare: Improving Regulation of Medical Data-Sharing Partnerships

About the author

Sean is a MPhil student at Cambridge University studying Technology Policy. He is a former Watson Fellow that worked in Ethiopia and India on issues around physical disabilities. Outside the classroom he’s a member of the Cambridge University men’s lacrosse team.

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