The medtech revolution is also an opportunity for quality of life

4 Dec 2017

Image: Seksan 99/Shutterstock

Data, skills and new technologies are the best medicine for Europe’s medtech future, writes John Kennedy.

Medtech Week

From where I sit in Ireland, hardly a day goes by without the lamentable state of healthcare and our hospitals being a national headline. Every year, between €10bn and €15bn is thrown at a system that is paid for publicly by most citizens via taxes and social insurance as well as supplemented by private health insurance by those who can afford it – and still, it remains a mess; it is not enough.

This of course is at complete odds with the patience and dedication of the doctors and nurses at the frontline whose professionalism is rarely praised or appreciated enough.

At times, it appears that the ills of the Irish health system are unique, but the reality is that healthcare provision worldwide is creaking from the administrative strain of handling chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes, ageing populations, and more.

The scale and cost of the issue of chronic illnesses such as these was brought home recently at a recent Virgin Media digital evolution briefing in Belfast where Dr Austin Tanney of data firm Analytics Engines painted a stark picture.

“422m adults worldwide have type 2 diabetes due to their lifestyles, which is preventable and reversable,” Tanney said.

“6pc of the UK’s population have this. At this rate, we will have 150,000 more patients with diabetes in the next year. The disease is costing £365m a year in Northern Ireland alone. Across the UK, this costs £14bn a year or £25,000 a minute – and the consequences are strokes, blindness and heart disease. All of this can be prevented by people losing weight and being more active.”

The fog of war in healthcare

Often on battlefields, the belligerents only know what’s going on immediately before them; everything else outside their perception is termed the ‘fog of war’. And yet, through Tanney’s example – where he showed, through the prism of data, that people who live in poorer neighbourhoods are at greater risk of diabetes, for example – we see how better analysis can inform us of how to take on this global pandemic.

Tanney also revealed that there is a skills problem, as most medical systems cannot compete if Google is offering up to $500,000 a year for a data scientist when all the NHS can afford is £40,000 a year. This is all on top of an overall skills shortage of doctors and nurses in frontline services.

Then again, you don’t need to be a data scientist to know that factors such as alcoholism and drug abuse are also mitigating factors in clogging up emergency rooms the length and breadth of Ireland and the UK most nights and especially at weekends.

So, if data, skills and lifestyles are part of the treatment for the ills of healthcare, what can we do about it?

The well-catalogued woes of healthcare in Ireland are not only at odds with the professionalism of healthcare workers, they are in stark contrast with the success of the vast life sciences industry that has grown up on these shores, but also the promising young medtech scene characterised by dynamic young companies.

The issue is: how do we bridge the world standards of innovation with a crippled health system, and start changing and saving lives?

The latest numbers available from IDA Ireland indicate that there are now more than 120 biopharmaceutical operations in the country, out of which 40 are approved by the FDA to produce goods for the pivotal US market.

In 2015, the biopharma sector recorded €39bn worth of exports, and it contributed more than €1bn in corporation tax to the Irish exchequer annually. There are 29,000 people directly employed in the biopharma FDI sector alone, and nine out of the top 10 biopharma giants in the world are manufacturing in Ireland.

Aside from the multinational success stories, Ireland’s entrepreneurial flair when it comes to medtech and life sciences is outstanding.

Much of the medtech scene in Ireland owes its origins to the closure of a large part of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in Galway in the early 1990s, unleashing seasoned and ambitious young executives to start up their own businesses with their redundancy cheques.

In particular, a powerful medtech cluster has grown up consistently in Galway and across the west of Ireland in the past three decades.

For example, in 1991, CR Bard filed its first patent for a device for use with a catheter and, two years later, it started an R&D programme on coronary balloons. Two years after that, former CR Bard employees established MedNova, a manufacturer of interventional cardiology equipment.

The tradition of medtech innovation continued with the Royal College of Surgeons of Ireland (RCSI) developing the world’s first online surgical education programme, called BeST, in 2000. It continued with the rise and rise of companies such as Creganna Medical, Cook Medical, ClearStream Technologies, Capsos Medical, NeoSurgical, Surmodics and many others. Last year, Creganna was bought for €821m by Swiss sensor-maker TE Connectivity.

The medtech revolution rumbles on with local players such as SurgaColl Technologies in Dublin, an RCSI spin-out developing regenerative technologies, and Signum Surgical in Galway, developing post-surgery technologies that prevent reinfection and enable faster healing.

Recently, we reported that U2’s Bono and The Edge were coming aboard as investors in Dr Nora Khaldi’s NovaUCD spin-out Nuritas, along with investors such as Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff.

Another example is previous Inspirefest speaker Prof Louise Kenny who won international attention for her work at the INFANT Centre in Cork University Maternity Hospital. Kenny’s research focuses on the prediction of pre-eclampsia, one of the most common, but deadly, potential risks to pregnant women.

Or just look at Ciara Clancy from Beats Medical, who recently won the accolade of Ireland’s Best Young Entrepreneur at a Google event for her app that is transforming the lives of thousands of people with Parkinson’s disease all over the world. Utilising individualised metronome therapy, the app improves mobility and reduces instances of gait freezing. It also provides users with daily assessments and regular progress reports.

How do we marry innovation with immediate needs?

In countries such as Ireland, the lamentable administrative bottlenecks are at odds with the pace of innovation by young entrepreneurs and the dedication of frontline workers.

Exactly a year ago, I attended a Connected Health event at the Digital Hub where a range of medtech-oriented start-ups gathered to gain the latest insights and guidance on everything from product design to regulatory compliance.

I was told by Fionnula Gibbons, clinical industry liaison officer at Molecular Medicine Ireland, that, at that point, up to 100 medtech companies had presented their technologies to the HSE to see how they could translate into the Irish healthcare system.

She said that while major technological changes are afoot at the HSE in terms of the new electronic health records, start-ups will still struggle with the heavy regulatory regime and standards that apply.

While the HSE ecosystem is clearly becoming more open to new technologies, the challenge is seeing if we could take the scale of innovation of start-ups and entrepreneurs on our own doorstep, and infuse it into the immediate crisis facing the system.

No health system in the world can be fixed overnight. Nor can the skills crisis. But the opportunities afforded by data and insights as well as the rise of innovative entrepreneurs willing to effect change via new technologies – including data, apps and wearables – must not be overlooked.

To effect change, we must start with ourselves. The opportunity to fix the world’s healthcare systems is also an opportunity for the quality of life. Let’s begin now.

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years