The arrival of the novel coronavirus was shocking, but it had a positive impact on the uptake of technology in the NHS. Now, as the health service prepares to ‘reset’, that positive impact is still being felt, but the market has become more complex.

Susan Venables, founder and client services director at Highland Marketing, reflects on the advice, marketing and PR services that it has been providing over the past nine months; and how they can help clients to succeed in the future.

It is nine months since prime minister Boris Johnson went on TV to tell the country to “stay at home” to “protect the NHS and save lives”.

As he spoke from a desk in 10 Downing Street, the health service and its suppliers were scrambling to respond to the novel coronavirus. Yet despite the shock and dislocation, it was already clear that some changes were being made that would be positive for health tech in the longer-term.

The first wave of Covid health tech adoption

In the early days of the pandemic, the focus was on setting up remote working, sorting out virtual clinics and consultations, and reconfiguring electronic patient record systems to triage, treat and track patients without wasting PPE: and those changes have stuck.

At the start of October, NHS Digital reported that 13.2 million meetings and 65 million messages have been sent over the Microsoft Teams platform that it rolled out the week before Johnson’s speech. In webinars and case studies, trusts have said that where 95% of their outpatient clinics were face-to-face before the pandemic, more than 70% of appointments are now held by phone or video call.

Digitally mature organisations have described how they were able to use data to develop Covid-19 risk stratification tools, while less advanced trusts have described how they accelerated planned EPR deployments to support clinicians. GP appointments went online almost overnight: and stayed there.

While this has been going on, most sectors of the economy have been locked down or struggling. So, health tech has received more interest from the press, public, investors and business that it might otherwise have done.

Over the past few weeks, Highland Marketing has started working with prospects and new clients looking to launch into or expand rapidly into a health tech market that is more receptive to new ideas, products and services than it has been for some time.

However, NHS IT remains a complex sector and, as ever, success depends on understanding it and getting the right messages to the right people at the right time.

And the growing complexity of the second  

One aspect of complexity is the background against which these health tech developments have been taking place. NHSX was about to consult on a tech plan for health and social care when lockdown was announced and the work all-but stopped.

This left the NHS without an over-arching strategy for refreshing its infrastructure, completing the digitisation of the significant minority of hospitals that are still paper-heavy, making progress on interoperability standards, or putting information governance on a secure footing.

Yet, as NHS organisations start to look beyond the pandemic, they need to know that any IT investments they are contemplating will fit with national policy imperatives and funding. So, our advice to vendors that want to work in these areas is to keep on top of developments and to keep up the marketing and PR activities that will put them front of mind when organisations are ready to move forward.

Other areas of healthcare technology are consolidating. Organisations that adopted remote working and virtual consultations with the support of the national contracts set-up at the start of the pandemic will need to evaluate them and to decide what to keep, change or swap-out as they come to an end.

Decisions will be taken against a backdrop of fatigue at trusts where staff have been working flat-out for nine months and the approach of winter. Plus, this year, the imminent arrival of a new set of management structures to support the NHS Long Term Plan’s agenda of integrated care and population health management.

So, our advice to vendors that want to work in these areas is not to be surprised if the flurry of leads that they might have seen earlier in the year has dried up but to stop, evaluate the market, work out where you fit, who you need to talk to, and what you need to say.

We have almost 20 years’ experience of working in the health tech market, and that experience has taught us that the NHS is rarely receptive to a ‘hard sell’ that focuses on a service or product.

To be successful, vendors need to show they understand the priorities and concerns of the organisations that they are looking to work with; and to encourage their customers to tell others about the improvements they have delivered for end-users and patients.

That is absolutely the case at the moment and in the exciting digital patient space that has opened up during the pandemic the message will be different from one area to another.

NHS England has told the integrated care systems that will start work in April to get shared care records in place by next September; but the handful of local health and care record exemplars that are ahead of the game are already working on automation, telehealth and remote monitoring.

The health tech market has changed and we’ve changed with it

To support prospects and clients, Highland Marketing has formed a number of partnerships over the past nine months. These include alliances with organisations that can provide advice and support, such as the Institute of Healthcare Management and Tech4CV19.

We also have existing relationships with consultants and staff with research skills, who can help you to analyse the market and what potential customers are looking for. We also offer sales acceleration services to put you in front of those customers.

Many companies paused sales acceleration activities in the early days of the pandemic, but we are now running campaigns that are being well received; when they are delivering the right messages. Naturally, we continue to advise on messaging, and to write whitepapers, case studies, and press releases for our clients.  

To support this core marketing and PR activity, we have also increased support for media outlets that focus on positive news about health tech, such as the Health Tech Newspaper, for which we sponsor the increasingly influential Health Tech Awards, and its online conferences.

With the physical business closed for the foreseeable future, webinars and digital weeks and festivals have become increasingly important; and not just for companies looking to launch or expand in the market.

Companies working in some of those big policy areas that have been less impacted by Covid have also made good use of webinars to stay in touch with existing customers and to keep themselves front of mind for an anticipated pick-up in activity as the NHS looks to ‘reset’ next year.

We have been working to extend the reach of online events by creating videos, blogs and social media content from them. However, we can see signs of ‘Zoom fatigue’ setting in. Next year, we will be looking for webinar providers to adopt more modern conference platforms, with opportunities for live blogging, visualisation and other content services that support engagement with the audience.

Research the market, find the right messages, let your customers do your talking

As a business that works with the NHS and the suppliers that support it, we can never forget the huge toll that Covid-19 has taken on health and wellbeing in the UK. Yet there is no disputing that the past nine months have been positive for healthcare technology and that they have created optimism for the future.

As the UK went into the first, nationwide lockdown, we advised our prospects and clients not to go quiet, but to keep communicating with their leads and customers; and that remains our advice now.

But it is more important than ever to research the market, to talk to the real issues that it is facing and, whenever possible, to let your customers tell their story; and to get the recognition they deserve for the work they are doing at this extraordinary time.

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Susan Venables

Founder and Client Services Director
Susan takes a fresh approach to marketing and public relations. She established Highland Marketing in 2002 after a long career working with well-known agencies and clients ranging from SMEs to multi-nationals. During the past 20 years she has helped many companies within the technology and healthcare IT sectors to raise brand awareness and reach new potential customers. Susan is respected by clients, getting them and their services noticed when and where it matters, and by the media where she has many long-standing contacts.
“Effective marketing and communications demands a lot of passion, commitment and experience, and that's exactly what we provide for clients. Right from the start I match them with a team of people who each have at least ten years' experience, and who often know what it's like to run their own business. That mixture of maturity and determination is very potent. Clients really notice the difference, especially those who have previously worked with agencies that send in their top people to win an account then hand the actual work to inexperienced junior staff.”
A little about Susan:
  • Champion athlete - During her first year at Durham University she thought she would have a go at rowing. By the third year she was winning national competitions and was later part of the GB women's lightweight rowing squad.
  • Dog lover - Susan developed a love of dogs when she was a little girl in the Warwickshire market town of Southam when the family's pet used to protect her pram. These days she has two black Labradors, and a Samoyed to exercise.
  • No second best - As a child she always had a rebellious streak combined with a determination to excel, especially at sports like hockey, athletics and netball. Those traits carried over into adult life where she found her niche establishing and building her own business rather than following a corporate career path.

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