The theme of the PHG Foundation conference on Thursday 27 June was From Hype to Healthcare, and we explored the many policy approaches to navigating from the excitement surrounding scientific and technological innovations, and their predicted potential for health, to identifying the true value from amid the hype, and making them available to health professionals across the country for patient benefit.
No simple task, and no job for any one person or even profession – as evidenced by the multidisciplinary backgrounds of our speakers and delegates, and their varied contributions to this endeavour. We were delighted to welcome a hundred participants to Cambridge for an exciting and informative day of discussion and debate.
Harnessing opportunities for health systems
As a health policy think-tank concerned with making science work for health, PHG Foundation plays a significant role in supporting the process, as was highlighted throughout the day. This involves translating ideas, discoveries and innovations into real, reliable tools for better prediction, prevention and management of disease. It requires considerable effort and expertise above and beyond those who develop and deploy innovations in practice. Science may offer the opportunities, as exemplified by the potential of genomics for personalised medicine – but as we learned from Prof Dame Sue Hill of NHS England and Prof Mark Caulfield of Genomics England, realising those opportunities takes vision, leadership, strategic planning, engagement with a range of disciplines, intensive investment of time and resources, determination and a great deal of hard work. Similarly, new developments in AI, digital health and diagnostics pose challenges for those charged with designing and delivering systems to assess and apply new tools for health, as we heard from Jess Morley of NHSX and Dr Sarah Byron of NICE. One clear message that came across is that, with the ‘push’ of scientific progress and technological opportunity on the one hand, and the ‘pull’ of health service and population need on the other, there is no room for complacency – but rather determination, agility and adaptation.
Some of the best innovations for the health system may be the least glamorous; as Jess Morley observed, ‘efficiency is not sexy’ - but can offer huge benefits for the NHS. Realisation of such advantages may be slow at first, but becomes clear as evidence of clinical utility builds; Sarah Byron noted that diagnostics are ‘no longer the poor relation in healthcare innovation’.
Managing policy complexities
After lunch, the conference turned to examining just some of the complexities posed by innovations for healthcare in greater depth, with sessions considering therapeutic genome editing, policy-making in the face of rapid scientific developments, and making the most of big data for health.
One major theme was the need for innovation in policy to keep pace with science and society; it may surprise some to learn that one of the top questions for policy-makers to put to themselves was are you being too predictable? Similarly, Dr Stephen Lee of the Medicines & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency talked about the introduction of ‘sandboxing’ as a new regulatory concept adopted from computer science – effectively, creating a closed ‘safe space’ environment for testing and experimentation with new models or approaches to see how current regulation may or may not work.
The bigger picture
Finally, we closed the day with a highly enjoyable perspective from Dr Giles Yeo on obesity genomics; everyone could identify with the anecdotes about how individuals react differently to being offered a plate of biscuits. Unpicking the genomics that influences eating behaviours – whether for humans or for labradors – offers crucial insights that policy makers and health professionals will need to consider in planning effective approaches to managing and reducing levels of obesity. It was also a timely reminder of the critical value of human interactions – including humour – in health delivery. I look forward to feeding my mind further with Giles’s Gene Eating book.
Ultimately, our conference underlined not only some of the issues we face, but also potential solutions. Bringing to bear expertise, perspective and evidence from across the multiple groups involved in biomedical and health research, innovation, policy and practice will enable progress. Successful implementation and uptake of innovation requires the passion and drive that brings different people and professions to work together.
More photos from the day are now on the conference page