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Blüm Health: Bringing digital transformation to the NHS

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Dr Michael Watts, co-founder of Blüm Health, tells Health Tech World how he overcame a systemic resistance to change to bring new digital solutions to the NHS. 

Successfully rolling out new technologies within the NHS is no mean feat.

But by navigating the complex regulatory landscape and fostering collaborations between NHS Trusts and the health tech industry, Dr Michael Watts, co-founder of Blüm Health and the team have streamlined the process of bringing innovative health technologies to market. 

Blüm Health is now the legal manufacturer for several NHS trusts across the UK, supporting them to build new technologies within the public sector ecosystem. 

This has led to the development of ground-breaking health technologies, ranging from digital health applications to medical devices, all aimed at improving patient care and outcomes and one in particular serving over 100,000 children through their platforms. 

On top of this, Watts has independently supported over 20 NHS England Clinical Entrepreneurs, providing them with invaluable guidance, resources and mentorship and as the digital health lead for the Midlands Engine, in collaboration with the Department for Business and Trade, he has played a pivotal role in supporting young companies in their efforts to internationalise.

After scooping up the Health Tech World ‘Young Health Tech Leader of the Year’ Award, Watts shared what he’s learned along the way.

Can you tell me a bit about your background and what brought you to Blüm Health?

I’m a doctor by background.

I’ve worked for the NHS since I was 18 years old, I started out as a health care assistant and then went to medical school, so I’ve always worked in healthcare.

I still practise clinically as an acute medic and I have a passion for sports and exercise medicine.

My day job is at Blüm health, which I co-founded in 2019, just before the pandemic.

So what was the motivation behind Blüm?

I was getting quite frustrated on a number of levels, wanting to move into leadership and management.

But it’s very hard to do that as a junior doctor. You’re not really given the headspace and time, or the authority to influence change in a hospital, even though I was ambitious to do so.

Michael Watts

In terms of technology and digital health, that was more frustration around the siloed ways of working, and the fact that a lot of technology was poor to use, nor did it interoperate with the wider system.

I thought there’s got to be a better way of doing this and that’s how Blüm was formed.

What does Blüm do? What is the focus of the company?

We’re best known for our like NHS-ready software development.

Our key tagline was building software that was regulatory compliant, out-of-the box and patient centric.

We do all of the user testing with our clients, and scalability as well, so it should be usable within the healthcare ecosystem, it should be usable across a number of hospitals, and shouldn’t require significant resource to implement.

To date, we have built around 12 products and now have a consulting arm that compliments our engineering team by supporting other healthcare providers and digital health SMEs with regulatory compliance and digital transformation strategy.

Coming from a clinical background, how did you approach the other aspects of launching a health tech start-up?

My approach was always to stick with what I was good at.

I stayed in my lane and focused on the clinical aspects, but I also recognised the importance of understanding leadership and management within a fast-growing organisation which is why I also undertook an MBA which I graduated last year.

Now I come to Blüm from a clinical and commercial angle and our co-founder, James, who is heavily technical by background, supports the engineering part of the organisation.

By cross pollinating our teams and capabilities in this way, we’ve been able to cross-pollinated our capabilities and stay ahead of generalist agencies.

What are some of the main challenges of rolling out new technologies in the NHS?

The biggest barriers to entry are commissioning and regulatory compliance.

The way we have worked historically is to partner with NHS organisations when manufacturing.

Half of our portfolio actually is built in collaboration with NHS Trusts, and by co-creating solutions in this way it is easier for opportunities to be established between two NHS organisations. 

Regulation can also be a barrier for many SMEs as the costs and time associated often mean it gets overlooked.

But I heard a great line – if you invent the ship, you also invent the shipwreck, which indicates the importance of ensuring that the software we build is robust and safe.

By becoming experts and immersing ourselves with fantastic regulatory partnerships, we have become experts in getting solutions compliant. 

Have you experienced any resistance or hesitancy from NHS teams?

The resistance isn’t to technology, I think the resistance comes with change, because the system itself is so complex and every NHS staff member, clinical or not, is working at capacity all the time at the moment.

When you’re just focused on keeping your head above water, it’s really hard to then think about diving into something new, which creates a lot of challenges as an innovator.

You really have to be clear with the value proposition.

I normally say that change occurs when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.

As a supplier external to the NHS, our main job is to show them the pain of change is less than staying the same. 

How does your technology aim to address some of the pressures facing the NHS?

Our solutions solve a lot of the problems that we see day-to-day across the Life Sciences sector.

In particular, we support enabling a better clinical workflow, by layering in some automation to make processes more efficient, and generally improve patient outcomes.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges we still face is that we are just one of many hundreds of other providers and procurement is still not centralised, it’s still very fragmented.

I do think, unfortunately, that there will need to be a big ‘factory reset’ at some point, on all of the siloed systems that aren’t able to talk to one another.

I think there will need to be an element of digital cleansing that happens in the next five to 10 years to solutions that have passed their sell-by date, to make sure that all software that we use in the NHS is interoperable, is robust and is the best for our patients and staff.

What feedback have you had in terms of how your software improves clinical practice and patient outcomes?

A lot of our solutions speak for themselves in terms of their user base.

We’ve got one mobile app called Mersey Burns that’s used by 40,000 users across the UK and supports the resuscitation of Burns patients.

Our virtual speech and language therapy platform is used across 600 schools, which encapsulates 100,000 children who are able to access speech and language therapy virtually, where they otherwise could be missed by the system.

We are imminently releasing a solution that identifies patients with birth trauma, which was identified as a critical need in a recent Parliamentary Birth Trauma Inquiry.

We continue to receive great feedback from our partners and users that our solutions create a real cost-benefit, supports the workforce and relieves them of some of their pressures, and ultimately, continues to help break down health and inequality barriers across the wider system. 

Out of all your achievements so far what do you think has had the greatest impact?

I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve been able to diversify our portfolio and our impact through not just one product, but a multitude of projects in just a three-year time span and they’ve all been different in their own ways.

We’re able to touch every corner of the NHS one way or another, because of the different systems that we’ve built and this is a fantastic step towards a more robust and joined up digital health ecosystem.

What are your long-term goals for Blüm Health?

I think the next five to 10 years for the UK healthcare industry and the NHS are still very uncertain and I would hope that we can try  to create some certainty amongst this.

I think that certainty really comes from having good quality software development and solution delivery within our ecosystem, supporting the mission of joining up care and safe sharing of data.

Our big focus at the moment is building partnerships with other organisations that share our vision and work in similar spaces.

Much of the NHS has recognised the need to work with industry to create change.

My focus is to continue to advocate the SME community which continues to take risks on building disruptive innovations for high-impact change.

From your perspective, what does the future of the NHS look like?

It’s a difficult one to predict, but something has to change.

We need to have a better understanding of where we [the NHS] are spending money and what the return on investment is, this includes supporting our workforce.

We need to safeguard our NHS if we are to continue to receive free care at the point of access, and producing solutions that create efficiencies without compromising safety is our contribution to this.

It is important for us to continue to identify opportunities for change and continue to work towards the commitments made in the NHS Long Term Plan.

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