Fiona Nicholson

Fiona Nicholson, Partner, Bristows

Sarah Ruthven

Sarah Ruthven, Associate, Bristows

Following the Life Sciences Seminar on ‘Navigating the Digital Healthcare Landscape’ held by Bristows LLP earlier this month, Fiona Nicolson and Sarah Ruthven, of Bristows LLP, discuss the opportunities and challenges opening up in the arena of digital healthcare.

The rapidly evolving developments in the field of digital healthcare have created a blurring of boundaries between hospital and personal monitoring. This blurring to some extent has been a consequence of the fact that patients are keen to participate in their own healthcare in a more direct way, and the need to find new ways of coping with the demands on the healthcare system of patients who are living longer with chronic illnesses which require regular monitoring. This demand from both sides is leading to the entry of non-traditional players (Google being a prime example) into the healthcare sector. This was the subject of discussion at a recent Life Sciences seminar at Bristows LLP earlier this month.

Whereas traditionally computer science, communications, and medicine were seen as entirely separate disciplines it is now recognised that in order to develop innovative ideas to address the various challenges facing the healthcare industry, ‘disruptive technology’ for clinical use is required. The message coming from the speakers at the Bristows’ seminar was that cutting edge innovation cannot be achieved by these industries working in isolation and new collaborative relationships need to be developed.

This type of “collaboration in action” was neatly illustrated by the example of the Google-Alcon deal which followed the development by Google of its ‘smart lens’ technology. Google, according to Afia Asamoah, Product Counsel at Google Life Sciences, readily admits that its expertise does not lie in the Life Sciences arena, but rather that it excels in technological innovations surrounding information management and analytics. Thus when Google announced the development of the ‘smart lens technology’ in January of this year, it stated “we are not going it alone: we plan to look for partners who are experts in bringing products like this to market” – and that is exactly what it did, eventually choosing to award a licence for its “smart lens” technology to Alcon, the eye care division of Novartis.

All three speakers highlighted the need for partnerships of different areas of expertise in order to achieve success in the digital healthcare landscape. Aria Asamoah discussed that as in the Alcon deal, going forward Google will be actively seeking partners to collaborate in bringing developments of its technology to market in the form of clinically meaningful products. Seth D. Levy, Partner at Nixon Peabody, spoke of the convergence of the technology, content and healthcare industries that is happening in LA at ‘Silicon Beach’ and the way in which these sectors are working together to drive innovation and enhanced user experience in the healthcare space. Professor Tarassenko, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering at Oxford University and Founder of Oxehealthdiscussed the increasing interaction and partnerships between Silicon Valley and universities in Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Professor Tarassenko explained that the combination of technology and clinical care is not exactly a new idea- indeed the concept of ‘Telehealth’ was being discussed 10 years ago. However, given the ubiquitous and advanced nature of smartphone technology in this day and age, the landscape for such alliance to succeed is far more fertile now than it was then.

This opens up vast new possibilities for healthcare companies to harness the powers of digital devices for non-conventional use. Oxehealth, for example, are developing ways of using webcam technology, already available in the huge majority of UK households, as a means of monitoring vital signs in a quick non-invasive way. This is without even beginning to touch upon the numerous possibilities for companies surrounding the exploitation of technological advances in products under the categories of ‘implantables’ ‘wearables’, and ‘ingestibles’.

While it was discussed that healthcare companies need to actively seek collaborations with technological industry, and be less risk averse to the opportunities opening up in the technological sphere (which are inherently uncertain by their ground-breaking nature), the speakers highlighted that it is also important for technology companies to be aware of the need to liaise with the clinicians in order to create products which will have meaningful impact. Currently many home monitoring devices are just recording ‘noise’ – ie data which is of no real clinical use or significance.

Technological innovation by its nature is characterised by speed, yet medical devices can take years to get regulatory approval, and this mismatch can cause frustration. It must be recognised that is a new era for the regulators as well, and there also needs to be collaboration between industry and the regulators in order to ensure education of both sides and the development of a pathway to get such developments to market in a way that is clinically safe, efficient and commercial.

The belief expressed by Google that the toughest healthcare problems can be solved more innovatively with different experts around the table can be neatly summed up by the quotation from the CEO of Novartis, Joseph Jiminez upon the announcement of the Google/Alcon deal “Some of our biggest healthcare issues that we will face over the next 10 years are going to be solved by bringing together high technology with biology”. The message coming loud and clear from the recent Life Sciences seminar at Bristows LLP was that in order to achieve this symbiosis of industries, both technicians and clinicians must find new ways of working with each other to achieve the desired pioneering results.