Brexit could turn the digital talent tide back towards Europe – how can we keep Britain innovating?

Can London keep the global digital health crown post-Brexit and rise to Simon Stevens’ rallying cry for “further, faster” digital progress in the NHS? Dr Felix Jackson has some suggestions. Re-published with the permission of HSJ.

In early 2016 the sense of optimism and excitement about the tech sector in London, and its potential to revolutionise health and care in particular, created the perfect backdrop to then London Mayor Boris Johnson’s unveiling of a new accelerator to support digital health entrepreneurs run by DigitalHealth.London.

Supported by NHS England as well as Johnson’s office, the pre-Brexit initiative was designed to use generous EU funding to put the capital at the centre of a “global revolution in digital health, as Johnson put it at the launch event. It planned to establish an accelerator programme for start-ups where these new businesses could access expertise, network and seek access to customers and investors alike.

Now, 20 months later, the accelerator has recently welcomed its second wave of hopeful entrepreneurs, and the drive from policy makers to see a benefit from tech in health and care has intensified, with NHS England boss Simon Stevens just last month calling for digital health innovation to go “further, faster”.

Goal out of reach
However, with the UK facing a “no deal” Brexit, it is understandable that many in the sector are wondering if the continuing uncertainty over Britain’s economic future as a standalone nation will put Johnson’s pre-referendum ambition out of reach.

My company, medDigital, has developed medCrowd, a compliant messenger for health and care teams, which was one of the first wave of successful start-ups to be taken on by the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator and has benefitted hugely from the programme.

During the last 12 months, the generous support from Tara Donnelly and her team at the Health Innovation Network in South London has given us an unprecedented access to the key people who are doing digital health in London, advice on how to work within the complex environment of the NHS and the exposure we needed at key events around the capital.

A report by Deloitte in June revealed that 36 per cent of non-British workers currently in the country say they are thinking about leaving by 2022

However, as we put the ladders down for the next group of bright and visionary entrepreneurs with the dream of applying tech to improve patient care, are we inviting them onto a burning platform?

According to recent reports, nearly half (40 per cent) of the digital start-up community in London are from other EU countries, and there are signs that top tech talent from around the world are starting to question if coming to London or the UK remains their best bet.

A report by Deloitte in June – which revealed that 36 per cent of non-British workers currently in the country say they are thinking about leaving by 2022 – is a stark warning for our sector; it reported that highly skilled workers from EU countries are the most likely to consider leaving, with 47 per cent thinking about seeking opportunities elsewhere in the next five years.

Lack of skilled workers

Meanwhile, anecdotally, my colleagues and I have noticed a drop in non-UK attendees at key events. This is a highly critical issue for the development of digital health. A report by PwC published this month showed that healthcare leaders around the world believe that a lack of skilled workers is the number one barrier to digital progress in the sector.
Of course London isn’t going to become an unattractive destination overnight, but the fear is that, as international competition for the digital talent pool intensifies, other leading European cities such as Berlin or Amsterdam may start to gain the leading edge for young international talent if the UK’s current access to the EU and the single market disappears.

So, against this backdrop, what will it take for London to remain the world’s leading destination for digital health innovation and rise to Steven’s rallying cry for “further, faster” digital progress in the NHS?

First and foremost, policy makers need to hammer out a deal that ensures organisations in this key growth area have unfettered access to the EU labour market to reassure employers and workers that the hiring and relocation process will remain quick and easy post-divorce.

A report by PwC showed that healthcare leaders around the world believe that a lack of skilled workers is the number one barrier to digital progress in the sector

Secondly, the investment in the sector in London needs to be sustained as European funding starts to dry up. Organisations such as MedCity and the Digital Catapault, as well as DigitalHealth.London have created an incredible environment for digital health start-up development in the capital, so ensuring the money and facilities continue to be provided is essential to allow sustainable innovation to flourish. They need to have the right backing to keep the dream alive.

My last request is a broader plea to the wider NHS. Organisations such as Academic Health Science Networks, supported by NHS England, have done really well in the last couple of years spelling out the challenges that digital can meet and matching them with digital solutions.

This needs to continue, supported by clinical champions within organisations who are given proper protected time to implement digital change rather than having to bolt additional work onto their daunting workloads (hopefully the newly announced NHS Digital Academy will help here!).

So, like leaders in other growth areas in London and the wider UK, the message is clear that we are ready and willing to do our bit and drive our sector forward. Because, as we enter an uncertain period it is even more important to secure our position leading the global digital health revolution for the benefit of our patients, the NHS, and the wider UK economy.

This article was originally published in HSJ and is reproduced here with permission from HSJ and the author.