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“Children are not mini-adults”: closing the investment gap in paediatrics



A new accelerator has launched to support start ups working in the paediatrics space, but more is needed to build the future of children’s healthcare.

Technology has facilitated some major advancements in the world’s health systems, improving access, boosting patient outcomes and streamlining clinical operations.

However, there is a significant gap in investment when it comes to health technology designed specifically for paediatrics.

Traditionally, digital health solutions have been designed for adults and then repurposed for children, overlooking the unique physiological differences.

To address this issue, a consortium of experts in the health and life sciences sector has launched the Children’s Health Impact Accelerator.

The 10-week start up programme aims to support early-stage innovators in developing technologies that address the unmet needs within paediatric care.

The accelerator is funded by Innovate UK and run by early-stage investor, Founders Factory, with the support of healthtech consultants Humant and children’s health charity, Thinking of Oscar.

Health Tech World sat down over Zoom with Olivia Brooks, an investor at Founders Factory and David Cole, co-founder of Thinking of Oscar to learn more about the disparities between adult and paediatric healthcare.

Changing the approach to paediatric care

Inequalities in healthcare is a familiar topic in the health tech space, but specific needs in children’s health are often overlooked.

According to David Cole, for change to occur, a shift in mindset is needed to recognise that children are not simply “mini adults”.

The way in which children are treated in a clinical setting varies wildly depending on their age.

Some clinicians argue that if the physiological challenges across the paediatric spectrum could be solved, it would be easier to scale these interventions up to adults rather than vice versa.

However, in most cases, this is how children’s health is approached.

“Children are not mini-adults,” Cole said. “The physiological differences between a child of zero and a child of 18, which makes up that pediatric spectrum, is vast.

“Even with a child between one and two, the physiological changes that they go through is also vast.”

Cole believes that children and their families should be empowered to have a greater role in the care they receive.

                            David Cole

He added: “Instead of having things done to them, they should be allowed to make decisions as to the ways in which they receive treatment and the ways in which they are educated about what’s happening.”

One organisation seeking to tackle this particular issue Xploro. It was founded by the father of an 11-year-old cancer patient.

Despite being capable of understanding what was about to happen to her, she was given no idea of what to expect from her treatment.

Clinicans spoke to her parents rather than explaining to her directly what her cancer journey could entail.

Xploro aims to improve children’s access to health information by delivering it through engaging mediums that incoporate augmented reality, gameplay and AI.

Cole also addressed the challenges of conducting clinical trials involving children. These often present ethical challenges, further hindering advancements in paediatric healthcare.

An alarming gap in investment

Pediatric healthcare has long been an underfunded area, from both the public and private sectors.

Only a fraction of resources are allocated to children’s health, despite children constituting 25 per cent of the population.

Less than 1 per cent of overall global healthcare funding is channelled into solutions targeted to children and young people.

“There’s probably only two or three VCs that’s solely concentrate on paediatrics globally,” Cole said. “Both of them are located in the US.

“There are individual cases where private equity has looked at funding certain opportunities which would have an impact on children’s health. But there is a long, long way to go.”

Not only does this lack of funding impact the care that young patients receive today, it also comes with longer-term societal implications, with far-reaching effects on healthcare systems and economies.

Children that are unwell in childhood are more likely to use healthcare services in adulthood, for example, leading to a long-term financial burden on health systems and the wider economy.

A rise in obesity, diabetes, chronic illnesses and a mental health crisis among young people is only likely to exacerbate these issues in the future.

“It’s kind of snowball effect in that more and more children are getting unwell and therefore society is going to pay the price in further years,” Cole said.

Big tech companies that have turned their attention to life sciences in recent times are developing new innovations that are deemed game changers for healthcare.

However, these innovations rarely focus on children’s health.

“That is a real miss because they don’t necessarily see the return on investment within the space,” Cole said.

“It’s an area which is overlooked, short-sightedly, in my opinion.”

As short-term financial opportunities are lacking in the paediatrics space, it’s the role of government investment to incentivise the private sector.

“Unfortunately, large enterprise will not see the potential because they are governed by their shareholders, they’re governed by short-term economics,” he said.

“Until we change the long-term economics around children’s health, [they] will not do it.

“If you look at any any big technology trends that have happened, it has happened as a result of government investment”

Olivia Brooks added that hospitals can also play a role in boosting the uptake in funding.

“A lot of different macro factors will affect things, whether that is regulatory changes or more hospital systems adapting to certain new technologies,” she said.

“Therefore, more companies see that there’s space to innovate or venture funds then come in and see that uptake by hospitalscand seee the returns possibility.”

This lack of investment and attention has led to significant gaps in paediatrics. However, new schemes are seeking to change the landscape and boost awareness of the unique requirements of paediatric patients.

Hope for a transformative change in paediatric healthcare

There is a long way to go before paediatric care receives the funding it needs, but Brooks believes things are starting to change.

As interest slowly but surely begins to grow, numerous opportunities are coming to the fore.

Virtual reality (VR) is one such technology, which has shown potential in mental health treatments, providing gamified approaches to therapy.

The use of digital health tools, such as games and quizzes, also offers new ways to engage and treat children.

Meanwhile, remote monitoring holds the potential for allowing children to be cared for in their own homes rather than in a hospital setting.

Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, for example, has introduced a new remote monitoring solution called ‘Little Hearts at Home’ which allows children with congenital heart defects to live at home with their families for 6-8 weeks at a time.

In the past, many of these patients needed to live in hospitals due to the amount of surgery they required from birth.

“I think the tide is turning, and I’m seeing more interest in paediatric investments,” Brooks said. “I think there are definite opportunity areas.”

                 Olivia Brooks

“There are lots of opportunities in emerging technologies,” Brooks added. “VR is a big buzz area, there are opportunities in that space for mental health treatments and gamified treatments.

“That’s a different approach, using traditional CBT used in adults and gamifying it for children.

“That’s on the digital health treatment side, but if we’re looking at clinical neonatal care, that is a whole different space in terms of child monitoring and care coordination.

“Things to speed up, care delivery and make care delivery more efficient.

“There are so many opportunities for investment and innovation in this space that still need to be tapped.”

Building new opportunities

The future of pediatric healthcare lies in the development of health solutions that address the specific and nuanced needs of children.

Aside from improving outcomes for patients, prioritising investment and innovation in this underserved area has the potential to reduce long-term healthcare costs and empower paediatric patients to take an active role in their health.

The ongoing advancements in health tech, coupled with a shift in mindset and increased funding, hold the promise of transforming pediatric healthcare and ensuring a healthier future for future generations.

The Children’s Health Impact Accelerator seeks to play a role in affecting this change, providing crucial support to early-stage startups with fresh ideas.

The scheme offers funding, expertise, mentors and access to a network of children’s hospitals and healthcare operators.

20 early-stage health tech ventures will be selected across diverse areas of healthcare, including paediatric oncology, neonatal technologies, rare diseases, remote patient monitoring, respiratory conditions, obesity, preventive care measures, movement and muscle disorders and surgical technologies.

The Children’s Health Impact Accelerator programme is currently accepting applications.

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