Author: Helen Northmore, Head of Digital & AI at Life Sciences Hub Wales
Find out about what the Ecosystem has achieved in the first three years!
I’ve sat here and thought about how to sum up the last 3 years of my life and the best fit I found was a birthday message designed for a 3 year old.
Happy 3rd Birthday! This year you really have learnt to talk well, haven’t you? You have such a curious mind and so many questions to ask!
At times I have felt like many parents, desperate for someone to tell me what to do or that what I was doing wouldn’t cause lasting damage! But after three years of talking to clinicians, companies, academics, social care providers, entrepreneurs, informatics teams and support organisations across Wales, the UK and internationally, I still feel I still have so many questions to ask and my mind is most definitely still curious.
The Ecosystem was created in 2018 because there was an ambition from Life Sciences Hub Wales, NHS Wales Informatics Service and Welsh Government to accelerate the adoption of digital health and care technologies in Wales.
We wanted to understand why was it was taking 4 years from idea to pilot, with a miniscule chance and another chunk of years before adoption? Our initial name was ‘National Digital Platform for Health and Care’.
In the end we launched as Digital Health Ecosystem Wales – we’re a recognition that doing things requires building a willing community who want to try doing things. That focus on practical action is at the centre of everything we do – I try and start every conversation with ‘how can we help you?’ and the way I describe what we do is ‘making it easier and faster to adopt digital healthcare technologies’.
So how have we made it easier or faster and what have we learnt?
Feel free to insert your own cliched quote about it being about the journey not the destination here – the cliché works because it is true.
My journey started the week we launched our first event, we chose to have an afternoon bringing NHS and suppliers together to look at the different technology options for asset tracking, to help NHS colleagues understand what was possible, what options existed and the pros and cons of different systems and tech.
Our first event resulted in our first big project, conducting a pilot of passive RFID tracking of assets in the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. You can learn more about the project in our case study.
The rest of our first year was spent building a network of people interested in digital health in Wales, talking to a wide range of people, organisations, companies, and sources of support to understand what was already going on and what the needs, gaps and barriers were.
It became clear that there were a lot of passionate, clever, motivated and committed clinicians, informaticians, academics and businesses in Wales who were developing new digital ways of working but they didn’t have ways to talk to each other or know each other existed.
We held events to raise awareness of digital health hot topics and to start building the digital health community in Wales – helping to create these connections. We joined the European Connected Health Alliance (ECHAlliance) and became part of a network of Ecosystems around the world.
We started exploring how we could build an API and what APIs we could and should start with. We started with our most common activity, connecting people to sources of advice and support – and found more of it was NHS to NHS rather than our expectation of Industry to NHS.
In our second year the Ecosystem was a bit like a toddler – trying to run before we could walk. Digital health is such a big area, there are so many opportunities and projects and barriers that it is hard to know what to tackle first in order to have the most impact.
We expanded our team, enabling us to launch several test APIs during the year. This helped us understand the challenges in developing and supporting APIs intended to interact with NHS Wales systems – and our event on APIs in Oct 2019 (including our first technical deep dive) moved our understanding of our role from ‘develop and launch an API’ to ‘test processes and share our learnings’.
This was a big change of focus but meant that we went from developing a library of APIs to developing the NHS Wales Developer Portal with guidance and toolkits to bring together a wide range of developer resources – all now available here.
In September 2018 we also launched www.digitalhealth.wales – the online home of the Ecosystem and as many of our contacts, networks and resources as we could get together in one place. Our events had started making connections and a community but we wanted to bring together all the information we had collected.
We also launched our Twitter stream the month before (@DHEWales) to share funding opportunities, useful reports and interesting projects in digital health. And we were expanding our community, talking about the Ecosystem at events internationally, we hosted the first ever meeting of the UK and Ireland Ecosystems and showcased our experience at the Digital Health Summit in Finland in December 2019.
The answer to many of our ‘how can we help’ questions were increasingly asking for practical support.
We expanded our ability to provide project and bid support as well developing some project-based activity to tackle the big barriers holding back adoption.
We worked with Health Technology Wales to review the Evidence Standards Framework for Digital Health Care Technologies, making it easier for commissioners to know what evidence to ask for and for companies to know what evidence to develop and provide.
We held roundtables bringing together all the sides of the table on big issues (cyber security, procurement) and came up with practical actions on how to make it easier. We tried lots of things, not all of them worked and most of them were more difficult or took longer than we expected but we started understanding where the gaps in support and resources were.
And then we reached March 2020 and the world changed…
We were planning a schedule of engagement events at the start of our third year, and it was very clear that wasn’t going to happen.
We were aware that Technology Enabled Care were tasked with rolling out video consulting at an unbelievable pace, protecting GPs and patients at this critical time, we simply asked ‘how can we help’?.
We volunteered our (and Life Sciences Hub Wales) marketing and communications experience to help reach primary, secondary and community care providers. With our support the TEC Cymru team enabled 139,000 video consultations in the last 12 months – you can find out more about this truly inspiring transformation in healthcare service delivery here.
When I think back to just 12 months ago, all I remember is everything being blurry – because things moved so fast. Although we had been preparing to welcome TEC Cymru to digitalhealth.wales for a phased development during 2020, we got the website up in two weeks.
And at the same time, we were asked to help our NHS colleagues by collating all incoming offers of support from industry. We received over 200 offers received from March to June, all reviewed and communicated where appropriate. We had the easy job – our Life Sciences Hub Wales colleagues handled over 2000 enquiries for supplying PPE and infection control services!
Our understanding of the challenges and needs of the NHS in Wales based on working through these offers of support led to us supporting the Welsh Government in launching the Digital Solutions Fund (DSF) in May 2020. As we were coming out of the first wave, it was clear that the delivery of healthcare had changed and was not only not going back but would need to move forward faster.
We set up a rapid pilot competition and in four weeks we selected five new products to test in Wales. Two of the pilots are now complete, with three about to get underway. Each of the pilots have taught us vital lessons and we are working with the Wales Institute for Digital Information to collect those lessons along the way. Check out a blog from one of our projects to see what they’ve learnt.
We were able to take a step forward with the launch of the NHS Wales Developer Portal in July 2020, and welcomed the National Data Resource onto digitalhealth.wales during the autumn.
We reduced our events activity as much of our audience had other priorities and supported other events that shared vital information. And we were delighted with the news that we had supported a successful bid to the Health Foundation by Public Health Wales, NWIS, Swansea University and Social Care Wales for a Networked Data Lab. And this was all in the first half of our third year!
The last 6 months we have been bringing together a new community focused on the opportunities AI can offer in delivering healthcare. There are some incredible opportunities and huge challenges that Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning and Robotic Processing Automation can provide.
We’ve supported applications to funding competitions, we’ve held events looking at openEHR and supported the National Data Resource’s webinar series. We’re delighted Care Home Cymru has joined digitalhealth.wales – ensuring that we are a first stop shop for information on digital health and care in Wales.
The biggest lesson for us this last year has been the significant appetite across health and social care to learn from 2020 and do things differently – the Ecosystem has built real expertise and capacity to support. There’s been a huge step forward in the adoption and acceptance of digital healthcare technology – we’ve rolled out new technology in weeks when it would have taken years. And there’s no desire to return to the old ways.
My curious mind wonders how much further and faster we can go in the next 3 years. How can we help you?