Challenges to healthcare innovation

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nnovative new products can and do transform industries every day, and the pace of change has accelerated due to massive technological breakthroughs such as the internet, smartphones and wireless technology. But when it comes to innovation, not all industries are created equal.

The healthcare sector is highly complex, and the medical care delivery ecosystem is under increasing pressures due to rising costs and patient expectations. These pressures and the inherent nature of the industry itself make innovation in healthcare more complicated than in the consumer products sector.

To break through the complexity and move innovation in medicine forward, inventors and product research and manufacturing companies must first overcome the many barriers to healthcare product development. Here are 10 of the top barriers healthcare innovators regularly face.

1. Medical efficacy review

To be successful, a new healthcare innovation must improve upon the current standard of medical care without causing harm to the patient and ideally lower costs simultaneously. But gaining access to medical professionals with the appropriate specialised expertise to determine medical efficacy can pose a major obstacle to even the largest, most established companies, not to mention the individual inventor. The diverse sets of clinical expertise necessary to review projects are rarely found in-house and can be expensive to purchase from outsiders.

2. Product distribution

Unlike consumer products, healthcare products are distributed through a more complex supply chain that involves multiple parties, including medical device manufacturers and distributors, the NHS purchasing and supply agency, physicians and nurses who provide the product to the end user, and the patient, who generally has no input on product or pricing considerations. Determining how best to break into this elaborate network can be daunting, if not truly insurmountable for inventors.

3. Manufacturer access

Gaining access to quality manufacturers is a major hurdle for many healthcare inventors because of concerns that manufacturers have about “intellectual property contamination” issues. In this scenario, manufacturers avoid learning about an individual inventor’s idea since it may be too similar to an innovation their internal research and development team is already working on; manufacturers do not want to run the risk of having to later prove to the inventor (or to a judge) that the idea was not stolen.

4. Lack of access to NHS purchasing data

Even large, well-connected medical manufacturing companies may find it difficult to access purchasing and product needs data and input from NHS. And operating in the absence of this information makes accurately estimating product adoption rates and potential market size virtually impossible.

5. Regulatory oversight

While it’s necessary to enforce strict guidelines on healthcare product manufacture and distribution to prevent incompetent or unscrupulous suppliers from harming patients, the EU regulatory environment slows the innovation process considerably.

6. Intellectual property complexity

Intellectual property rights have always been a confusing aspect of the inventing process for the majority of individual inventors. It can be virtually impossible to navigate without professional help.

7. Healthcare culture

By nature and for good reason, the healthcare industry is incredibly risk averse. As one doctor said: “The moment we step into medical school, we are trained to identify the most statistically proven method for treating a particular disease, and we are taught to not deviate from that path until a better method has been found and proven.” Compounding this issue is the fact that the majority of healthcare workers are increasingly time-pressed today, and so learning and adopting new systems, new methods of care or new devices often take a backseat to day-to-day patient care.

8. High-stress environment

Healthcare workers have high-stress jobs and often work long hours. They are dedicated to delivering great patient care, but the nature of the job can make it difficult for innovative thinking to flourish, since creativity naturally diminishes when an individual is in steady “fight or flight mode”.

9. Complex value analysis model

In the healthcare sector, it is difficult for a product developer or individual inventor to generate data on how the product affects not only direct treatment but also the downstream healthcare supply chain, which means that determining the true value of a new innovation idea is difficult.

10. Misconceptions about what constitutes innovation

Within healthcare, those traditionally tasked with product development (ie engineers and technical experts) are generally not the same people who are actually living with or treating a particular healthcare challenge.

As this list demonstrates, there are numerous and significant barriers to healthcare innovation, but there are also common themes throughout: an industry that is evolving rapidly and a lack of centralised expertise that skews perspectives and limits resources. Consumer product inventors face many daunting challenges, but the institutional, industrial and knowledge barriers that confront innovators in the healthcare field are unique.

To truly optimise healthcare innovation, individual inventors and companies must find a way to overcome these barriers. A successful collaboration among all parties – manufacturers, providers, the NHS and patients – is critical.

Everyone who has a role in the healthcare delivery process and the influence necessary to bring about change must be invited to play a part, since only by combining each party’s respective strengths through collaboration can we overcome these hurdles and begin to deliver truly exceptional healthcare.


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