Harnessing startup innovation to support European healthcare staff

In this guest post, Andrew Roughan - CEO of innovation company Plexal - argues that healthcare workers are under a lot of pressure, and technology can play a hugely positive role in supporting them.
Harnessing startup innovation to support European healthcare staff

For many citizens across the continent, it may be easy to forget we’re recovering from a pandemic now we’ve entered 2023.

Restrictions have been – for the most part – removed, steering holiday festivities back on track to spend unlimited time with loved ones. And in the European tech startup world, 2022 was positioned as the second-highest year for tech ecosystem investment at $85bn, according to Atomico.

One sector that remains in clear recovery mode, however, is healthcare.

As Covid-19 spread like wildfire in 2020, increased patient demand, subsequent staff shortages and an intensified working environment has meant immense, inconceivable pressure for care workers.

Walter De Caro, the Italian National Nursing Association’s president, has spoken of “emotional exhaustion of many colleagues" and Paris-based emergency doctor Christophe Prudhomme highlighted "a phenomenon of mass staff resignations". Similarly, a nurse in Germany noted that while staff numbers decline, patient needs are constant.

And of course, a nursing strike has begun in the UK, which follows a Brussels-based demonstration organised by the European Federation of Public Service Unions that had workers from Belgium, Spain, France, Romania, The Netherlands and Germany attending.

There’s no silver bullet for this multi-layered, country-crossing situation.

Yet, as a true believer in tech for good and having seen the benefits of innovation, I remain ever optimistic we as society and industry leaders have positive options to put into action. Options that can help empower and restore the vital and much-desired healthcare workforce to wellness, while simultaneously accelerating the teeming technology space further – ultimately creating prosperity on both sides.

Finch Capital has debuted its State of European Healthtech Report, declaring ‘Healthcare is healthtech.’ The report points to the way in which digital solutions supported care during the coronavirus outbreak, normalising the likes of remote diagnosis. As such, it’s created a hunger among insatiable investors for more innovation in the sector and, following a spike of activity in 2021, growth is expected to be resilient.

It isn’t just VCs ordering a slice of the healthtech pie though – the British prime minister has also openly enthused about the fusion of health and digital. “We need to embed innovation in our public services – especially our NHS,” declared Rishi Sunak during the recent CBI conference. “It’s private sector innovations that really drive growth.”

Cambridge-based robotic surgery scaleup CMR Surgical, for example, possesses a "goal is to empower surgeons, surgical teams and hospitals to transform how surgery is performed across the world.” With 100 Versius systems installed globally, it’s achieved European adoption from cancer and research centres in France and Italy, while NHS Wales obtained four systems through a pioneering national surgical robotics programme.

Even amidst challenges such as the Ukraine crisis and workforce reduction, the technology sector remains in high demand and growth continues to be robust – outpacing pre-pandemic numbers. Therefore, we should make a concerted effort to demonstrate the broader non-monetary value the market can offer the healthcare sector.

Telemedicine, drug development and testing & diagnostics are deemed mature sectors by Finch, and additionally I’d like to point to privacy-safe patient data usage as another healthtech-specific area ready for distribution into the field. 

However, the process for private and public organisations to begin conversations isn’t clear-cut, never mind progressing from initial discussions to begin working together.

Startups don’t necessarily know how to gain access to government and, even then, there are robust screening requirements to get through the door.

So, the expansive, international reach of the issues slowing down the smooth delivery of healthcare is cause for us to find a method that can tear down that barrier to private-public collaboration.

Zoning in on the specific challenges impacting healthcare – it’s clear that they centre around people, so it’s the workers we must empower.

Amidst burnout, staff shortages and budget constraints, we need to ensure health systems have the required tools to recruit, retain and deploy the staff as necessary. Robust workforce management is pivotal to help calm the waves caused by the pandemic, so there’s a solid opportunity for a broader spectrum of non-health startups to step up and play their role too.

One initiative in line with this is a recently announced global healthcare accelerator, a four-week technical, business and mentorship program to scale high potential startups developing solutions to support the healthcare workforce. However, more collective work must be done.

In the same way healthcare workers are urgently pushing towards the wellbeing of patients, we – innovators and government decision-makers – must come together with a mission-led approach to create solutions that can close the gap and support hospital staff to better serve those in need.

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