The Health of eHealth: Examining Liverpool’s eHealth Cluster

Laura Brown examines Liverpool's matchmaking service for creative and digital technologists and health and social care professionals, and looks ahead to increased funding, product potential and the Health North initiative...

The opportunity to live longer is undoubtedly a good thing. But it also poses challenges: how do we stay independent, strong and healthy as we get older? And how will cities support an ageing population?

In direct response, and coinciding with the rise of handheld, intuitive technology, Liverpool Region’s eHealth Cluster Ltd formed in 2014; set up by people within the city’s Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) and City Council. It is still the only SME-led project of its kind in the UK; matchmaking creative and digital technologists with commissioners, consultants and practitioners.

Rosemary Kay from RLK Partnerships, who supports the Cluster, says it’s about connecting expertise as the eHealth market develops globally and nationally. “It helps health and social care professionals link into the talents within our technology SMEs in the city region”, she tells me. The connections are both “structured and impartial”, so the benefit for health professionals is to tap into technology knowhow; while for tech companies, Kay says “it’s a real focal point and a good way for them to explore health and care opportunities”.

Building upon a gaming heritage

The eHealth Cluster, in many ways, builds upon Liverpool’s existing technology community whilst foreseeing an increased interest in eHealth. Driven by a knowledge of local gaming heritage that had been active in Merseyside since the 1980s (most notably via Psygnosis, now rebranded under Sony Entertainment Europe, as well as Bizarre Creations), plus a will to innovate in patient care, the eHealth Cluster has organised (another UK first) multiple social care hack days; where care workers, nurses and doctors explain daily challenges to technologists. Key concerns have included falls in the home, and how to help sufferers of (and carers of people suffering with) dementia.

One of those technologists, and eHealth Cluster founding member, is Chris Morland, who is also CEO of Baltic Triangle-based app agency Citrus Suite. “People can be empowered, engaged and entertained through eHealth technology”, Morland says. “Mobile specifically has some great benefits, not least scale, affordability, interactivity, accessibility and portability. With great products we can open up new possibilities for supporting people to protect and improve their health.”

North West Digital Health Challenge 2014 from SoMoCo on Vimeo.

Disney fitness and 3D surgical models

Citrus Suite have been at the forefront of some of city’s most innovative iOS and Android apps, including ReMind Memory Suite, aka ReMindMe, which enables people living with dementia to aid their daily routines (facilitated by Innovate Dementia, it won the first ever North-West Digital Health Challenge); plus Fee Fi Fo Fit, an award-winning app for Disney UK and Creative England that encourages young families to be more active.

This drive to explore new technology is also at the heart of NHS strategy and practice. The eHealth Cluster has introduced one of Europe’s leading children’s hospitals, Alder Hey in West Derby, to commercial partners, including BT, and also to the use of 3D models as a surgical reference during operations. Through partnerships, Alder Hey are exploring how the hospital can apply tech positively to children’s daily healthcare – with a technological-savvy generation in mind. One project unites BT and Sony to explore how mobile devices and sensors can help mothers bond with their neo-natal babies.

Enormous potential and increased funding

The challenges facing the NHS – including an ageing population – has called for an increase in funding for innovative ideas, in both eHealth and mHealth (mobile health). Last year, a report published by the NHS found that the EU alone has contributed more than €500 million in research funding to the development of eHealth tools and systems since the early 1990s. And with good reason: Morland tells me that two-thirds of Britons use smartphones. When we consider the devices’ abilities in tracking health and assistive technologies, to support either a disability or health condition, then the potential seems enormous.

“People can set goals, monitor their progress, and the app gives them ongoing feedback and encouragement when they make positive changes”, he says. “[NHS] Services are stretched, so it won’t always be possible to deliver this through face-to-face engagement by providing printed health information. So with the advance in technology and the increase in access to that technology, we have opportunities to harness that, and so, do much more.”

Moving forward, the governmental policy of devolution – stripping away some of Westminster’s power and giving it to regions – will have an impact on the adoption of eHealth and will build on the foundations of skills and knowledge sharing. In Greater Manchester, the devolution of health and social care to statutory organisations, which now have more control over its £6million budget, could, proponents argue, encourage local authorities and their NHS partners to use their newly combined resources in innovative ways. The Liverpool eHealth Cluster model, of getting the right people in a room so they can share expertise and experience, could lead to products being developed that could transform patient care and independent living.

'Health North' initiative

In fact, it’s already begun; University of Liverpool Provost and EPVC for the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences, Professor Ian Greer, is about to lead the development of the new Health North initiative: aiming to unlock future medical innovations via the teaching hospitals of the North. Professor Greer, who is Chairman of the North Health Science Alliance, will work with Life Sciences minister, George Freeman, and has £20 million of funding committed from The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne.

The eHealth Cluster was driven by a specific need; the challenge of what do we do when we all start to live longer but want to stay healthier. With reduced resources, what does that long life look like? Over the past three years, Liverpool’s creative and digital companies, in partnership with the city’s CCG and local authority, have shown that collaboration, of sharing practice and expertise, can result in the beginning of an answer to those big questions.

Laura Brown is a writer and PR based in Liverpool, and runs her own digital consultancy, working in arts, technology, regeneration and cities. She writes for titles including the Guardian, Bitten Magazine and Northern Soul.

Twitter: @Mslaura_Brown

Binary Festival 2016 Blog: a special media partnership between The Double Negative arts magazine, Creative Tourist culture and travel site and Binary Blog. See the Festival on 24 and 25 May 2016 in Liverpool, UK

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