14 tips for sustainability models in digital health

9th February 2017

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How can we develop a sustainable approach to using digital tools in health that (a) generate income to the innovators who have created the technology (b) is affordable for individuals or health organisations who will benefit from them.

When health and care practitioners have a great idea for a digital tool they often consider sustainability as an afterthought. When health tech companies develop a digital tool they often find it harder than expected to find healthcare organisations willing pay for it.

Like any technology in healthcare, whether it be a scalpel blade or a mobile app, the costs don’t end once it has been manufactured or developed. Whilst it is obvious to software developers, others don’t always appreciate that at the very least a digital tool will need hosting, technical support and ongoing development to stay current and useful. It’s not just the software that needs supporting - a digital tool is only as useful as the people who are aware of it and want to use it and so marketing is a key consideration. More than that, digital tools require specific steps such as privacy impact assessments and clinical safety assessments to be undertaken when being deployed in a healthcare environment, and these too require resources.

At our recent mHabitat Digital Development Lab bootcamp we brought in a group of experts to help us think about sustainability models for digital tools in health and care. Our Lab participants range from the charitable sector, academia, NHS, games development and digital start-up sectors, so they all had different approaches to sustainability and indeed profit.

Hot tips from our experts

We had some great tips from our team of experts and here is a  brief summary which we hope will be helpful to others:

  1. Identify benefit - identify and clearly articulate the problem you are seeking to solve and the benefit your innovation offers
  2. Who will pay - understand who will be willing to pay for this benefit - this may be an individual or an organisation
  3. Understand values - take time to understand the values of individuals/organisations who you hope will benefit from your innovation and align with them where you can
  4. Pay attention to context - understand any systems (for example, clinical workflow) that your innovation will fit into (or disrupt) and how they will change when your innovation is introduced (for example, will it save time or create extra work?)
  5. Consider incentives to change behaviour - understand who will have to change behaviours to make your innovation work and what will incentivise this change (the benefit of improved patient experience or access to better data are examples of an incentive)
  6. Be collaborative -  don’t simply push your product - be collaborative and work out how your innovation can help enable transformative change in a service or organisation
  7. Be outcome focused - many services and organisations are more interested in buying in help to achieve benefits and outcomes rather than inputs and equipment
  8. Ensure your innovation is safe and secure - make sure you meet all the information governance and safety requirements that are relevant to the healthcare organisation so they can be confident in your innovation
  9. Generate good quality data - build in analytics to your innovation so organisations can better understand and improve their service(s)
  10. Build in evaluation from the outset - build in evaluation from the outset so you can prove the benefits you hope your innovation will deliver
  11. Interoperability - interoperability between digital tools and electronic patients records can be costly and difficult so make sure healthcare organisations really want interoperability before making this investment
  12. Care pathways- your business model should be influenced by a number of factors related to the complexity of your innovation and where it sits in the spectrum of healthcare from prevention and public health through to secondary care. So, for example a mobile app used as a preventative tool is most likely to be bought by an individual via the app store. An app embedded within a secondary care pathway that is used by a health practitioner to deliver care is more likely to be accessed as a regular subscription by the service and may also be registered as a medical device
  13. Help from within the NHS - think about approaching your regional Academic Health Science Network whose role is to support diffusion of innovation across the NHS and may be able to help
  14. Get on procurement frameworks - there are many procurement frameworks and it makes sense to get on relevant ones if you can to remove barriers for organisations wishing to buy your innovation.

It’s also worth knowing that an NHS endorsement process for healthcare digital tools is currently under development. In the meantime it is important to follow relevant standards and guidelines such as these from the British Standards Institute.

We hope these tips are useful and please do get in touch if you have other suggestions to add.