· 3 min read · Features

City spotlight: Creativity meets healthcare in Newcastle

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After the Francis report into the failings of Mid-Staffordshire NHS Trust was published last month, healthcare technology company Digital Spark once again suspected the Government had been tracking its ideas.

Among the report's recommendations were sections focusing on data, including the implementation of real-time data collection to flag up potential breaches.

For some NHS Trusts, this sharing of data is unfamiliar - but not for those working with Digital Spark. "We've been facilitating benchmarking across Trusts," explains Michael J Bell, who co-founded the Newcastle company three years ago with Gavin Kipling after the two met working in IT for the NHS. "Data is openly discussed across peer trusts. That would have been unheard of a few years ago, but now it's seen as helping to address best-practice delivery across a wider area."

It's not the first time Digital Spark has been ahead of the curve when it comes to healthcare software. The user-centric way it works - collaborating with practising clinicians to develop software they actually want to use - sounds obvious, but as Kipling says: "It's a new model within the healthcare space. We go to the shop floor and work with clinical staff to understand what they need. Nursing staff can be against digital systems and happy with paper notes, so you've got to prove the benefits even more convincingly to get them to use the software."

Before launching their flagship product, CaptureStroke, which collects data and monitors performance around caring for stroke patients, Bell and Kipling spent six months working in clinical environments to ascertain what clinicians needed. "We would take in a new prototype every week and get continuous feedback," explains Bell. "That helped us get significant adoption early on, as people knew what they would be getting."

This approach has proved so popular that Digital Spark is now working with NHS Trusts and hospitals all over the country, and soon hopes to win business in Europe as well. The company works in partnership with a Trust to create a new system, meaning the Trust receives a share of the profits when it is sold on. That, explains Kipling, helps with clinician buy-in. "Partnerships work well because you can't just create a system, dump it on people and walk away. You are part of the process," he says.

Everything Bell and Kipling are doing is in step with where the Government is going when it comes to healthcare procurement. "There's a change of direction; they recognise having large suppliers running things doesn't necessarily work," says Bell. "Now the Government is working to engage SMEs in providing services to the NHS. There's a recognition that things can work better on a regional basis."

In fact, adds Kipling: "It's almost like someone from the Government has been following us and taking notes. We've done everything we've done because it's the only way we believe it should be done - it's obvious to us. It might sound clichéd, but it's not about the money, it's about making a difference in this world."

"The most important thing is the passion for delivering software that is going to have a real impact on people's quality of life," says Bell. "The software is improving patient care, which could be saving lives. It's an amazing thing to be involved with, so you need people who believe in that same mission."

This passion for what they do has helped Bell and Kipling attract the best talent around. Since the company started three years ago, it has grown rapidly to a staff of 15. They have cherry-picked the best people in the region, even managing to recruit some taking a pay cut.

Once on board, recruits are given a high level of autonomy. "In an SME, everything is more urgent," says Kipling. "It's up to you to make it happen; if you don't, no one else will." Personal development is considered critical. "A lot of people come to the company because they want a challenge and want to grow their skills," he adds. "What they are doing for themselves is just as important as what they are doing for us. We run 'inspiration days', with inspirational speakers. It's about empowering our staff to make decisions when we are not there."

Although the NHS is not known for its fast pace, right now it is changing rapidly, so suppliers and partners like Digital Spark need staff who have the ability to think quickly and innovatively. "One of the key attributes of a new member of staff is whether they look hungry, like they want to learn," says Kipling. "A lot of people just stick at one thing, and if you want them to do anything else, you need to send them on training courses. We wouldn't hire people like that. The technology is moving so quickly, that if you're not watching what's going on, it's going to pass you by."

And although engagement isn't a term all SMEs feel entirely comfortable with, Bell and Kipling are completely at home with the concept. "We have actively engaged staff in everything we do," Bell says. "They need to feel part of it, rather than us saying, 'this is our new idea, go away and do it', which happens in so many big corporates. Buy-in is so important for innovation."

Digital Spark is located in the Ouseburn valley in Newcastle, an area that is undergoing significant regeneration. It doesn't often get compared to California, but Kipling likens it to a "little Silicon Valley", becoming a real hub for digital software development. Bell, who is north-east born and bred, says this makes him "immensely proud, being able to grow a business in the north-east and have Newcastle recognised as a hotbed of technical talent", which he attributes to the city's vibrancy.

It's a vibrancy that's perfectly reflected in this small but mighty company. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to make a huge difference," Bell adds. You don't doubt they will.