With several initiatives delayed due to the pandemic, could medical technologies play a key part in Covid recovery?

With the publication of the NHS Long Term Plan came an outline of a need for an ‘uptake of proven, affordable innovations’. These technologies were to be accelerated through policies designed to encourage a new ethos of innovative throughout the health sector that would get medical devices, diagnostics, and digital products to patients faster.

The MedTech Funding Mandate, in consultation since December 2019, finally launched in April 2021, having been delayed due to pandemic disruption. The new policy will support new medical technologies, which have themselves been assessed and recommended by NICE, deemed effective, safe and able to save money within the first year of use. 

A step in the right direction?

As it stands, only a select number of products are supported by the policy for 2021/22. These include a handheld device which alleviates cluster headaches, a 3D modeller of coronary arteries, a device which secures percutaneous catheters, and a placental growth factor-based testing kit which rules out pre-eclampsia in pregnant women.

The current criterion for selection requires products to deliver material savings to the NHS of more than £1 million over five years for the population of England, demonstrate a net saving in the first 12 months of implementation, and have a budget impact of less than £20 million a year.

Demonstrating effectiveness within a year is a very narrow prerequisite and does limit the scope of the policy for its first year. Some may see this announcement and hark back to the previous step to addressing barriers – the Innovation and Technology Payment programme. However, from 2022/23 the mandate criteria will be expanded to include technologies that deliver costs savings within a three-year timescale. Clearly, eyes need to be on the long term.

What about the short term?

By virtue of being at the tail end of a third wave of Covid-19, with vaccinations programmes rolling out globally in earnests, the focus has turned to the challenge of resuming business as usual for the NHS.

No better is this demonstrated than with the backlog. According to estimates from the BMA, between April 2020 and February 2021, there were 3.24 million fewer elective procedures and 20.07 million fewer outpatient attendances. Just as concerning, the pandemic has also directly resulted in 1.2 million missed NHS Health Checks. These are the kind of sessions which catch strokes, heart and respiratory problems at the optimal time, meaning less of them results in poor abilities manage conditions in primary care and communities.

This backlog, according to the BMA’s March budget briefing, is potentially costing the NHS between £4 billion and £5.4 billion to work through.

What could follow in the next months and years is a complete overhaul of existing facilities, emergency care locations, electives, service redesign, and staffing needs. This mean there’s going to be an insurmountable quantity of new ideas, data, and technical assistance to work through. Yes, the NHS may lean on private healthcare to offset some treatments, but partnership with industry will allow MedTech to be a truly supportive partner. In this sense, relaxations in the mandate criteria for the coming years may come at just the right time.

Building in long term, affordable innovation

Digital transformation cannot take place without formal avenues for funding and adoption. Now that past fears that the MedTech Funding Mandate would never return have been alleviated, it’s time to realise that the health service is serious about the uptake of proven, cost effective, medical technology.

In the long term, that’s good news for patients and it’s good news for innovators. What should come next ought not to be another closed off attempt to reduced barriers while holding onto a narrow safety net. Rather, the next step should be the establishment of a platform for innovators to directly hear from organisations and patients on requirements, expectations and timelines.

Better engagement would certainly put MedTech on a long-term course to grow within UK healthcare. Of course, in the context of the unprecedented recovery challenges facing our health service, the sector needs greater access to this innovation sooner rather than later.