New initiative is aimed at improving our health services
Health Innovation Hub Ireland matches inventors and entrepreneurs with clinicians in ‘Dragons’ Den’-style process
The Health Innovation Hub Ireland team at work.
There is a widespread public perception that the Irish health service doesn’t serve people well.
Consider the queues in Accident and Emergency departments as patients lie on trolleys awaiting beds in a hospital ward; long waiting lists for many outpatients’ appointments; cancellation of elective surgery as emergency cases take their space in operating theatres.
A new public body, Health Innovation Hub Ireland (HIHI), is offering entrepreneurs and healthcare personnel a chance to fix or improve aspects of the Irish healthcare system.
Led by Prof John Higgins, the clinical director of Cork University Maternity Hospital, Health Innovation Hub Ireland links clinicians to businesses who want to test-drive their products in Irish healthcare settings. Prof Higgins, who is perhaps best known for the 2013 Higgins Report [which led to the development of the new Irish hospital groups with academic partners], is a firm believer in healthcare research and innovation.
Scientist Dr Tanya Mulcahy is the Cork-based national manager of HIHI and explains the raison d’etre of the hub. “When a company sees a market need and develops a product in a lab, office or their garage, it can be hard to know who to contact in the health service. So, once we review the product [and decide it’s worth pursuing], we will then contact clinicians, manage the pilot projects and write a report on the feedback we get,” she explains.
So far, the State-funded agency has organised pilot-testing of new medical devices, software packages for health and safety reporting and illustrated booklets explaining vaccinations to school children. And while each product can seem to offer a small improvement in itself, the idea is that more products tested in Ireland can, over time, improve the healthcare patients get.
One key element of the process is that the companies don’t pay for the trial of their product. And the testing of the product must not cost the hospital or healthcare facility either – except the time required for patients and staff to try it out. For the product to be considered, it must also show it does at least as much as what is already on the market.
Dr Mulcahy shows me an example of a new adjustable, breathable moulded polymer strap as an alternative to the plaster resin currently used to hold broken joints in place while they heal. “The big advantage of this new product from Fast Form Medical is that it can be wet and dried again, unlike plaster casts. It wasn’t taken up by the HSE because it costs more than plaster resin, but I think if patients had a choice, they’d use it. Personally speaking, I’d like to see alternative products like this available in vending machines in hospitals so patients could choose to buy it and have it fitted by the plaster technicians in the hospital,” she says.
The HIHI is also working with companies which are developing software solutions to ease the administrative burden on staff in hospitals. One example of this is ViClarity, a software system which allows healthcare professionals to track and manage safety data on patients electronically. When tested in Kerry Community Hospital in Tralee, the nurses found they saved up to half an hour a day compared to using a paper-based auditing system.
The new Health Innovation Hub has also asked the HSE to suggest specific areas of need where improvements can be made. So far, the HSE has asked companies to focus on ways to enable positive ageing and in particular to offer solutions to reduce acute hospital admissions, minimise polypharmacy and improve the independence of older people in their own homes.
To this end, a company has developed a wearable care clip with movement detectors. If the older person falls, the device automatically calls the designated person and sends him/her information on the older person’s location via a GPS tracker. “The idea is to prevent the older person lying on the floor for long periods which will reduce the likelihood of a hospital stay. We are currently trialling this in Cork city,” explains Dr Mulcahy.
As well as being the go-to agency for entrepreneurs to test their new healthcare products, the HIHI is also keen to engage with healthcare professionals working in hospitals and community settings who have ideas and solutions to problems they face in their daily work.
In Cork University Maternity Hospital, clinical director, Prof Higgins and his staff held an open forum to seek solutions to problems on the labour ward. “We brought 50 staff – consultants, midwives, porters, senior managers – together. When you do that, you get great ideas and there is also a consistency to the problems identified. The key then is to ask staff how to go about solving the problems. Innovation needs to come from the ground up,” he says.
Prof Higgins believes that as the hub becomes more established, projects in primary care settings and electronic self-assessment tools for patients will also be developed. “We also want to offer opportunities to the major international pharmaceutical and medical device firms based in Ireland. By having more research and development in Ireland, these companies will be less reluctant to move on from here.”
What is Health Innovation Hub Ireland?
Health Innovation Hub Ireland (HIHI) is a new State-funded agency whose aim is to bring improvements to the health service through the development of new products and supports. It was officially launched in Cork in September 2016 and now has staff in Cork, Dublin and Galway.
Essentially, HIHI connects businesses developing new healthcare products and services with clinicians who are willing to run pilot projects on the products. Companies submit their ideas which are then vetted in a Dragons’ Den-style pitch process with representatives from Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland, the Health Research Board and the HSE. The products that get through this process will be matched with the relevant clinical teams in hospitals and community healthcare settings. Once the pilot project is complete, staff at the HIHI will write a report on the future viability of the product. There is no charge for this service and there must be no cost to the healthcare facility for testing the product.
Healthcare professionals also have an opportunity to pitch ideas for improvements to the health service. And, according to the principal investigator Prof John Higgins (who is also clinical director of Cork University Maternity Hospital), the hub also wants to offer opportunities for Ireland-based medical device and pharmaceutical companies to test new drugs and products here.