What is the role of medical research charities in digital health?

Within industry, digital health is receiving phenomenal levels of resource and funding, with StartUp Health reporting that a staggering $14.6B of venture funding was pumped into digital health in 2018. As industry pushes ahead, buoyed by the clear appetite for digital health innovation, medical research charities are left to consider what their place is in this fast-moving area. Many charities have started to move into the space, as demonstrated by our Spotlight on Healthcare Technology, with our members developing over 100 software and tech products in 2015/16. As we stated in our On the Front Foot report, ‘today no leader, no Trustee and no volunteer in a localised care centre is unaware of [digital health technologies’] power’.

Medical research charities are aware that this is the future, and that developing effective digital health solutions could make the resources they have go further and achieve greater impact for patients. Despite this understanding, medical research charities have a unique purpose underpinning all their work that means anything they do must be approached with careful consideration and the necessary due diligence – to deliver genuine improvement to patients, to the greatest degree they can, so as to use their resources in the most effective way possible.

Critically, this does not necessarily mean using the latest, shiniest technology that will generate the most excitement – as one member put it ‘I don’t want to be innovative; there’s enough to be learned from more established [two year old] technologies’ (On the Front Foot). That isn’t to say charities fear innovation – it simply means that they will prioritise whichever technology best solves an unmet need in the most usable, accessible and sustainable way, regardless of how cutting-edge (or not) it is. And that they realise that industry and academia have the resources and expertise to innovate – ‘We won’t have the resources to become a technology R&D company, so we can add most value by influencing technologists’ (On the Front Foot).

So what ‘value’ can charities bring? Why should they be involved in the development of the latest health tech, if they’re not going to discover it themselves? Simply put, charities give patients a voice. And as is the case for any technology, not just in healthcare, the user is key. Charities have a trusted relationship with their patients, and can provide unparalleled insights into what patients need the most, as well as access to valuable patient data in many cases (see our Saving lives with patient data registries report).

Charities know they cannot develop breakthrough digital health solutions on their own: collaboration is key. And we are working hard to make sure this happens. In March, we will be hosting our annual conference Delving into Digital which aims to connect medical research charities with key stakeholders from across digital health to build networks to solve key patient problems, against a backdrop of hearing about the great collaborative projects already happening here and now. There will also be active, participatory sessions on the day to kickstart these conversations. Three table talks throughout the day will get key tech industry figures and medical research charities together in a room to discuss openly how and why they should form partnerships, and provide a platform to work through worries and blockers. We feel TechUK members are critical to these conversations and invite any interested organisations to register for the event and contact us to sign up for a table talk. We also have sponsorship and exhibitor options available for the event, for those looking to be front and centre to find potential collaborators.

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