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Last week, Westminster played host to the Decideum facilitated IPPR event ‘Keeping Up With The Science: The Future of Health and Care in the UK’. Leading figures from government, industry and academia gathered to discuss  innovation in the NHS and the need for long-term reform and additional funding. Notable speakers including Lord Darzi, Director of the Institute of Global Health Innovation at Imperial College London, Jon Ashworth MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Dr Liz Mear, Chief Executive of the Innovation Agency, amongst others, sought to guide the discussion of innovation in the NHS within the context of the government’s innovation agenda and increasing political uncertainty.

Professor Lord Ara Darzi kicked off proceedings with an affirmation of the new era of healthcare innovation that we are firmly nestled within. Lord Darzi spoke about the ‘convergence revolution’, the coming together of the different branches of science, where distant dreams of the past, such as gene therapy and immuno-oncology have become not just possibilities but real, palpable treatment options.

Andrew Obenshain, Head of Europe and Senior VP at bluebird bio, a sponsor of the event, effortlessly provided the audience with an overview of the patient journey for an individual undergoing gene therapy, from stem cell collection to immune system reconstitution.  He emphasised that gene therapy has arrived in modern healthcare, and is here to stay.

One of the most thought provoking questions from the audience came from none other than former health secretary and chair of the NHS Confederation, Steven Dorrell. Dorrell raised the question about the changing relationship between citizen and provider, asking though we have ‘‘ tended to think of ‘digital’ as technology which empowers service provision, does it not also fundamentally change citizen and service provider?” There is no doubt that this is something that policy makers and service providers will need to consider, particularly with an ageing population. Exactly how the digital, data revolution is rolled out in the NHS is the subject of much careful calculation.

The second panel discussion of the day looked at NHS Funding, Innovation and Economic Growth. These three interconnected issues were addressed by  Jon Ashworth MP as he set out the Labour Party’s vision for future innovation in the NHS, including a commitment to £1.3 bn investment in R&D. One of the central questions of the day was how far investment in healthcare could actually go, and Anita Charlesworth, Director of Research and Economics at the Health Foundation, said it was plain and simple – if you spend more money on this kind of stuff, you will see life expectancy rates go up.

Lord Prior’s assertion that the NHS was too short term, too political and too process driven brought the event to a close, as he spoke during the final panel session which discussed the possibilities of the Industrial Strategy and the Accelerated Access Review affecting real change. Paige Bischoff, VP Global Public Affairs at co-sponsors Intuitive Surgical Inc gave an example of innovation in practice.  She spoke of the opportunities and benefits that robotic assisted surgery (RAS) brings to patients, society and health systems; as well as of the barriers to uptake of the technology.

Lord Prior’s closing remarks delivered a much-needed sense of optimism, as he announced his confidence that the Life Sciences Industrial Strategy would in fact become a reality despite Brexit, due to the tremendously strong research base we have in the UK and the high priority the government has given to the life sciences sector. Nevertheless, Lord Prior urged we must not become complacent, with many companies already looking toward Europe.

The IPPR will publish a White Paper to reflect the themes of the event and articulate those drawn out by the conference in the form of broad recommendations to policy-makers. With consensus that flexibility and adaptation in the NHS is needed, it remains to be seen whether the plan for better access to and uptake of innovation will get the traction it deserves.

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