Startups often find the UK's National Health Service hard to sell into. These three tips can stop founders falling at the first hurdle.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) is one of the world’s biggest buyers of health technologies, and the big client that many startups in the sector hope to land. But the NHS can feel frustratingly resistant to change and averse to adopting new innovations.
Risk aversion is understandable — patient safety is paramount. At the same time, the NHS does need to adopt innovative products and services. The over-burdened free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system can’t be propped up simply with more funding, it needs new ideas, says Tas Gohir, who runs the innovation unit at the Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.
Gohir, a recent guest on our Beyond the Breakthrough podcast, is senior intellectual property, innovation and commercial research manager at the Centre for Innovation, Transformation and Improvement (CITI) at the Trust, and is looking for more ways to collaborate with startups.
He has key pieces of advice for healthtech startups hoping to work with the NHS. This is what founders should think about before they even make the approach.
1. Think critically about the real needs of the NHS
You’ve got a great product or service, but ask yourself: does it actually solve a problem that’s keeping NHS senior managers awake at night?
You should approach the NHS the same way you would with any other business development opportunity and make every effort to understand the healthcare system’s pain points, Gohir says. There is a long list of challenges — staff shortages, the need to cut costs, long waitlists and so on — and Gohir recommends founders think about how their product or service addresses “at least one of those critical things”.
Before trying to sell something to any business, “you would critically analyse the needs of that company before you approach them with a product offering,” Gohir says, but adds that this has not always been the reality when companies approach the NHS.
2. Your product/service mustn’t add another layer of cost
If you have, for example, a diagnostic test that could replace a current process the NHS is employing that the healthcare system has deemed adequate, ask yourself: is the NHS going to drop the existing test to bring your product on? If the current process will still be required in some form, your product is just adding cost — and the NHS is already battling a lack of funding.
It is also often difficult for the NHS to drop a current process — for one, it’s been vetted for patient safety and for another, the cost has been acceptable.
You have to think carefully about what, exactly, the NHS can remove to bring on a new product and how that will result in efficiency. Layers of cost “can often just keep adding up,” Gohir warns, “and that’s not doable for the NHS”.
3. Make the purchasing manager’s life easy
Engage with purchasing managers early, but also make sure you are engaging in ways that are useful to them. Purchasing managers “have to put a business case to the trust before changing anything,” Gohir explains. If you make their life easier — such as by writing the business case for your innovation for them or helping them write it at least — it means they can go to the right committees within their NHS trust and have your product or service adopted.
This also links back to the first piece of advice from Gohir: to get an innovation adopted by the NHS, it is crucial to understand the NHS’s needs and offer a genuine solution.
These three tips won’t guarantee success with pitching to the NHS, of course, but thinking through them will at least prevent startups from falling at the first hurdle.
Listen to the full episode with Tas Gohir below or on your favourite podcast platform.