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ABHI at 30 Guest Blogs: To the machines that go beep

If there are unsung heroes in the NHS and there certainly are; porters and estates people and coders and all the rest, there are also the ‘invisibles’ who diagnose us, keep us safe and keep us ticking over.

We go into hospital or the GP surgery and we are surrounded by them. So much are they the familiar landscape of healthcare they become invisible.

The invisibles; the machines that go beep, the machines that keep us alive, the machines that measure, the machines tell us what we need to know, give us news, good and bad.

The medical device industry, so much part of our healthcare and well-being.

There are a lot of things for the NHS to be worrying about; workforce planning, a digital strategy, cost-containment…we’ve never worried about the HealthTech/device industries. It’s always been there, keeping us safe. Now, I think we should.

The management of patients through the use of health technologies is commonplace. We depend on it and as we move from an analogue, to a digital NHS, expect it to do more, manage better and our interdependency with the industry and its innovations will become greater.

My worries come in the cloud generated by Brexit.

My visits to Europe and conversations with businesses across the Channel, should reassure me that EU business no more want a clogged-up, clunky export system, any more than we do.

As much as EU leaders may play hard-ball, they know that supply chains and market access is as important to ‘their’ businesses as it is to ‘ours'.

Except, I have a nagging doubt.

The UK device industry is the third largest behind France and Germany but our domestic device manufacturing is a patchwork of small enterprises, working in the shadow of a few global players.

If the complexities of trading, post-Brexit, are tedious or create friction, the big players will relocate, because they can.

Smaller organisations will be left to struggle with whatever the Brexit legacy might be. We know the NHS is a slow adopter of technologies, reimbursement mechanisms, labyrinthine and device revenues smaller compared to even Italy and Spain.

The NHS is slowing up and waiting lists are now in the region of 4m people. Device consumption is slowing. The NHS has been an iconic but small market and is unlikely to become the first choice for innovation launches.

The fall in the value of the pound is a double edged sword. Good if you export, bad if your product contains imported components.

Leavers will say, when the post-Brexit dust settles, markets will bounce back, but in the meantime, loss of traction and regulatory delays, may mean bouncing back is not enough.

There is a huge amount for this sector to celebrate, be proud of and put in the nation’s shop window. Innovation, robust management, entrepreneurial determination all mark out the device and tec’ sector as a part of the economy that is precious to us and in many respects leads the way. We must look after it.

Under the collegiate leadership of the ABHI, for 30 years the industry has flourished, saved lives, extended our well-being and played an invisible role in family life.

It is part of the NHS family and like all families, facing challenges, it is time to keep together, value what we have and face the future with the confidence that has created such a distinguished past.

To the machines that go beep, the joints that don’t creak and the all invisibles…happy birthday and thank you.

Roy Lilley

Roy Lilley is a health policy analyst, writer, broadcaster and commentator on the National Health Service