A sector deal for health?

As the end of a tumultuous year approaches, it’s time to reflect on the plethora of policy papers, reviews, consultations, strategy documents and sector deals that are set to have a significant impact on the health and life sciences sector.

Every step of the journey from a key insight in a university laboratory or an NHS setting, via its transformation into an intervention that might achieve a meaningful benefit for a patient, and its subsequent adoption by the NHS, has been subject to scrutiny.

Birmingham Health Partners (BHP) is a relationship between the University of Birmingham, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust and Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust that has put research and innovation, together with its adoption and evaluation into the healthcare setting, at the heart of what we do; but how do we make sense of this complex and ever-changing landscape?

I’ve chosen to focus on three key documents: the ‘Health’ (Life) Sciences Strategy, whose launch BHP hosted earlier in the year, the Industrial Strategy White Paper and the associated sector deal for the ‘Health’ (Life) Sciences.

What do these reports tell us, and why do I choose to refer to the ‘Health’ (Life) sciences?

Firstly, definitions matter, as the expert evidence testimony to the House of Lord’s Science and Technology Committee has consistently demonstrated – most recently from the CEO Designate UKRI – the life sciences community is a broad church, and it has not been adequately represented in the current strategy.

Secondly the ‘Health’ (Life) Sciences strategy has, rightly, emphasised the tremendous strengths that the UK has in this sector; the creativity of our universities, the NHS, our pharma, and medtech sectors is inspiring. Their strengths are a reflection of the leadership and sustained investment by governments of all colours and the creativity of our employees from wherever they may hail.

But has enough been done to ensure that the benefits of this sector strength have been felt across the country? Or, as a consequence of the need to build geographical clusters to be competitive globally, have the benefits been too narrowly focused? Can we do more to ensure that the innovations generated lead to real improvements in the health and wealth of our communities? What are the missing ingredients?

Enter stage left the Industrial Strategy White Paper with its emphasis on place, skills, enabling infrastructure and the ambition to create well-paid jobs across the UK. As with all ambitious plans, the devil will be in the detail of the evidence that might support an intervention and the extent to which the public, and private, purse can actually afford to finance it.

How has this played out in one of the first sector deals to be announced; ‘Health’ (Life) Sciences, and what impact has it had on our region and BHP?

It is fair to say that there was little for the region to celebrate in the initial wave of investments and announcements, which was a disappointment. However, there are a number of opportunities for us to play into the bidding for inward investment in areas such as ageing, health data and medtech.

Our challenge will be to speak with a consistent voice and strong evidence that demonstrates our capabilities to convene and build complex platforms and networks that deliver against national agendas – whether they are in genetics, clinical trials or health data.

Our ambition for BHP is that it functions as the ‘anchor’ of a strong and vibrant West Midlands health and life sciences economy. The opportunity offered by our partners, current and future, drawn from within and across different regions could potentially re-balance the UK’s health and life sciences.

However, as a report from colleagues at the University of Birmingham’s City REDI highlights, the UK’s regions are uniquely vulnerable to the impact of Brexit. It is our responsibility to mitigate these effects through building a strong health and life sciences sector, thereby ensuring a healthy and wealthy future for our second city and the wider Midlands.

Dr John Williams
Managing Director, Birmingham Health Partners