The UK government is committed to investing in digital technology in the health service and to streamlining market access for innovators, Lord Markham has told the Health Tech Summit in a speech as part of London Tech Week. 

Noting that in 2022 the UK became just the third country in the world after the US and China to have a tech sector valued at $1 trillion, Lord Markham said he was committed to “removing barriers and ensuring our health service remains on the frontline of innovation.” 

He added: “Digital and technology is one major way that we will address some of the challenges that face the NHS. We know that digitally mature trusts operate with approximately 10% improved efficiency compared with their less digitally mature peers.” 

A range of support for innovation 

The government is ramping up support for digital therapeutics, Lord Markham said. In March the Chancellor included £225 million of ringfenced funding within the Budget for digital mental health and musculoskeletal, known as MSK, initiatives.  

He added: “We’re accelerating the deployment and adoption of clinical grade technologies that are evidence-based, and used to prevent, manage, or treat a medical disorder or disease.

“The first mental health and MSK products will be available via the NHS App later this year, allowing 24/7 access to suit lifestyle factors without the need for a clinician referral.” 

The government also plans to level up the use of digital tools within existing NHS Mental Health Talking Therapies services, Lord Markham said. 

There are also are a range of existing programs supporting health technology innovators. As of 2022/23, the Small Business Research Initiative Healthcare award programme has made cumulative investments of over £129 million and has funded a total of 324 projects.  

The Digital Health Partnership Award has funded 43 NHS projects identified as novel, with the potential to scale at pace. The technologies are focused on supporting people at home and over 140,000 patients have been supported in under two years, he added. 

Innovate UK provides funding to UK-based businesses or research organisations to support and stimulate innovation in the UK economy, offering grants of between £25,000 and £10 million and innovation loans of between £100,000 and £1 million.  

The National Institute for Health and Care Research, which works with industry at all stages of the clinical development pipeline, supports promising innovations to generate the evidence needed to get to market.  

Lord Markham said: “We’ve provided £123 million to test and evaluate 86 AI technologies in areas such as urgent stroke care, home testing for disease and cancer screening. These technologies are being deployed and scaled across 99 hospitals, and 300 primary care networks in the UK. 

“We’re working on coordinating these investment programmes and evidencing the impact for scale across the NHS.” 

Levelling up and productivity 

A key priority for government technology funding is supporting health and care systems to ‘level-up’ their digital maturity and ensure they have a core level of infrastructure, digitisation and skills by March 2025. 

To support systems to level up, the government will be conducting an annual digital maturity assessment to help organisations baseline their current level of digital maturity against existing What Good Looks Like guidance to improve decision-making, identify opportunities for collaboration, and enhance patient experience. 

Lord Markham also highlighted the New Hospital Programme, which he said will ensure the NHS and its staff have the facilities they need for the future.   

He said: “Digital design is at the heart of our approach to standardisation in the New Hospital Programme.

“Our aim is for this to bring even greater productivity gains than digital alone and there could be 20% productivity gains from that, which will encourage Treasury to help fund even more new hospitals.”   

In addition, he noted that more than half the commitments the government made a year ago in its Data Saves Lives strategy paper have been delivered, including ensuring that all 42 Integrated Care Systems have a shared care record in place.  

Erecting a regulatory structure 

NHS England are working collaboratively with NICE, MHRA and other partners to create a clear, efficient and user-centred pathway – including a clear policy framework and supporting market pathway – to scale digital health technologies in the NHS.   

The proposed commercial pathway is being co-designed with views from industry, Lord Markham said, and will “provide clarity for innovators about how they evidence their products and how they will be reimbursed.”  

He added: “It will help to consolidate the buying points, streamline market access for industry and will also provide opportunity to leverage the buying power of the NHS. 

“A conditional recommendation pathway is being designed to support innovators to gather evidence whilst undergoing the evaluation process.”  

As part of this process, the Digital Technology Assessment Criteria (DTAC), a critical assurance process, will ensure that all new technologies deployed within the NHS meet baseline standards for clinical safety, data protection, cyber security, interoperability and accessibility and usability.  

He added: “Our digital and technology procurement framework strategy recommendations make the procurement process easier for both buyers and vendors to navigate, removing duplication and reducing costs. 

“We’ve introduced a number of nationally led Dynamic Purchasing Systems enabling buyers and sellers to be agile in the purchasing and supply of digital solutions for the NHS.” 

The final aspect for ensuring that AI and digital have a transformative impact is to develop them safely, ethically and in line with best practice in evidence-based medicine, Lord Markham said.

This is the basis of the AI & Digital Regulations Service, launched in full on Monday, which brings together guidance on regulations that apply to digital and AI in one place in order to save time for developers bringing products to market. 

Lord Markham said: “We must continue to make the UK the go to place for industry to develop healthcare innovations, with access to the best data in the world to do so. 

“We are working hard on multiple fronts to streamline the market pathway, listening to the concerns of industry and taking practical steps to ensure market access is a lot smoother. “