Real Healthcare Innovation Always Answers a Simple Question

10/05/2016 11:22 | Updated 10 May 2016

Healthcare has always been synonymous with innovation. From ground-breaking pharmaceutical treatments and surgical procedures, to cutting edge technology and software designed to prevent, diagnose and treat ill-health - the opportunity to create something that truly helps people is a driving force that has attracted leading thinkers, scientists and inventors - many of them here in the UK.

Just recently, for example, I read about the use of virtual and augmented reality for clinical training - software that enables medical personnel to 'travel' through the human body and carry out simulated surgical procedures to hone new techniques. Microsoft proposes using its HoloLens in a similar way. Elsewhere, in the States, one company is developing an artificial intelligence engine that could revolutionise radiology services by predicting disease in x Rays.

The frantic pace and array of healthcare innovation inspires, fascinates and bamboozles us in equal measure. We are excited yet often overwhelmed, wondering if "we could" is overtaking "we should" as the motivating factor.

To anyone who finds themselves in this camp, my advice is simple. Strip back the tech-talk and science-speak and ask this simple question: will it help us avoid or better treat ill-health?

No matter what the innovation, this one question can cut through a wealth of distractions to its true worth. To demonstrate, let's return to two of my examples above.

Virtual reality surgical simulations. Though it feels like sci-fi, peel back the futuristic focus to question the patient benefit and it is clear that this is an innovation that could help improve surgical precision, inevitably resulting in better patient care.

AI radiology integrations? Go ahead, ask the question. The answer is clear: enhancing a predictive tool capable of identifying the early stages of disease or injury, and enabling that tool to 'learn' as is goes, will help thousands to avoid disease in the first place, or delay or even halt its progression.

Another useful test bed for the 'simple question' theory is health apps.

Many people write off health apps as faddy and superfluous to 'real healthcare' - tools to fuel the 'worried well' or gimmicky developments that only really benefit fitness fanatics and health-kick hobbyists. It may be true in some cases, but in others, there is true benefit.

Take the new 'Share Your Record' service in Patient Access, a development that enables people to share their medical records via a time-limited secure web link or QR code.

To some, the words 'web link' and 'QR code' - phrases usually associated with consumer tech rather than healthcare - may prompt scepticism. So let's ask the question. Will it help patients avoid illness or receive better care?

Yes it will. As this story highlights, the service means that patients can securely share vital details from their GP record with, for example, A&E doctors, multi-disciplinary care teams, or even clinical teams abroad (in the case of medical emergencies). At the very least this helps guarantee consistent care - particularly for patients with long term conditions who may need to make numerous visits to different healthcare teams and individuals - but it is also a potential life saver in an emergency.

What about this: an app for Parkinson's sufferers that uses metronome soundwave therapy to 'cue' movement by effectively over-riding dysfunction in the brain. It is one of a number of mind-bending innovations to feature on this year's WIRED Health startup stage. It has attracted much attention from the tech sector and was supported by the Silicon Valley accelerator programme.

It's also an innovation that helps those with this particularly cruel condition to improve mobility and therefore take better control of their own care. Mobile gadgetry these apps may be, but interrogating them with a simple question reveals their essential benefits.

The beauty of taking this approach to innovation is that as well as making the seemingly complex simple, it also reveals the real genius behind what seem straightforward ideas.

I came across a great example of this when reading about the winner of the Bay Area Global Health Innovation Challenge. University teams from around the world are invited to pitch low-cost "solutions designed to tackle major global health challenges". No mean feat.

Entries included a mapping app to prevent road traffic injuries, an RFID tracking device to improve immunization rates and an orthotic device that helps burn patients with hand injuries to gradually regain a full range of motion.

Impressive. But they didn't win. What did? Mealworms.

The winning team's idea was for mealworm farms to create protein-rich flour. In this case, the innovation couldn't really be simpler - tackling malnutrition by producing food. Does it help people avoid illness or receive better care? Certainly. It helps people avoid illness in many ways. As the judges pointed out, "the enterprise creates jobs, provides a healthy and sustainable protein alternative to livestock, and fuels the local economy". You can read more about this competition and the winning idea here.

These Stanford students took a basic idea and ensured that it met the complex mix of health and social factors that results in a healthy community. App developers take complex technology and use it to answer basic health challenges. It is easy to be cynical or dismissive. It's also easy to see the true innovation at work. Just ask the question.