The same point applies to the development of med tech applications. "I think in that respect medical schools have got a big role to play because they provide access to students and junior doctors who would be really willing to test out the products early in the development cycle and give feedback. I read about a software system developed for A&E departments where users found they could only have one record open at a time, meaning they would have to discard their notes if another urgent case came in. I don’t believe the product would have got to that point if clinicians had been involved early on. Of course, med tech is a complex and fast-moving field so the ultimate solution would be combining the expertise and passion of the people within medical schools and the deaneries with experts and specialists on the technology side of the fence – computing and engineering. Solutions will come from different groups of people working together, as with HYMS Med Tech Society."
In addition to a knowledgeable customer base, universities are established centres of research and innovation which makes them attractive to investors and entrepreneurs. James and his co-founder were therefore able to take advantage of the existing financial and networking opportunities at Leeds. "We won an innovation award from the medical school in 2014. That really helped because at the time we weren’t generating any revenue and it meant we had something to put on our website which gave us some credibility. Leeds University also has a well-regarded enterprise scheme called SPARK which awarded us an enterprise scholarship. As well as financial support, that included office space and workshops on some of the nuts and bolts of running a business which were really helpful."
By the end of his fourth year, James decided to focus entirely on Synap after completing his studies but he stresses that his decision is unusual. "When medics approach me, it tends to be because they have got an idea and want to know how they can do this alongside their clinical practice."
As CEO of Synap, James often returns to Leeds to talk to undergraduates with an interest in technology and business. So, what does he advise those like Vaish about getting involved with med tech?
"First don’t wait because there is never an ideal time. Whether its parents to look after, or kids, or you are saving up for a mortgage, there is always a bunch of reasons to put something off to next year. At some point, you just need to get started with your idea. I’d say the first port of call should be things like the hackathons because you get to meet some like-minded people, hopefully with complementary skillset to yours. The work you do there might not set the world on fire but it’s a start and it will put you in front of some people at the NHS that are interested which will help to grow your network.
"Med tech is generally a difficult field because of the complex due diligence and purchase process. However, there are now more NHS schemes to encourage home-grown clinician-led innovation compared with five years ago, including the clinical entrepreneurship programme."
The growth of university med tech societies in recent years has been an important development, James observes. "There wasn’t that infrastructure in place when I started medical school but I think having a med tech society alongside areas like surgery and psychiatry definitely helps signpost people to a place where they can go and meet others who share that interest."
If med tech leads to a better allocation of clinical resources then more patients would benefit and that would be a good outcome for everyone.
For Vaish, membership of the Med Tech Society has shifted her perspective. "It’s influenced the way I approach my studies. For instance, if there is a lot of information to learn for a particular module, I’m like: 'Is there an app that could help me learn quicker?' Subconsciously, I’m always thinking about how our lives could be made easier if we use technology more."
And even if she doesn’t get involved in the development side, she believes her interest will make her a better doctor. "I think it’s important to be as receptive as possible and be keen to learn how to use med tech because it might benefit my patients. It is difficult to develop technology but I think if doctors can learn to utilise it well, they are helping its advancement in medicine."
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic has given technology a higher profile for medical students and practising clinicians. "When the crisis happened, we moved to online classes and there was a change in the teaching of clinical skills," says Vaish. “We usually focus on how to talk to a patient but it became how to talk to a patient over the computer or on the phone so you can make yourself clearer. So already, technology and its applications are part of our learning and that’s going to happen more in the coming years. Many of the problems we face in medicine will have technological solutions and that will be incorporated into our education.
"I believe we are now on the cusp of a new era of medical technology which will ultimately benefit doctors and patients," she continues. "For example, during my clinical placement, patients would sometimes tell us that they find it difficult to come to the hospital because they had transportation problems. Utilising technology like remote consultations can minimise those kinds of barriers."
"During the pandemic, it’s been a case of necessity is the mother of invention," James comments. "Things like video consultations were probably already in the pipeline but would have taken ten more years before they really came through and there were some valid concerns. The pandemic meant GPs had to make a decision and overall, that is probably going to be a good thing."
"At the same time, I don’t want people to get the impression that we are saying that the future of healthcare should be all about video consultations. There has to be a human side to medicine and I wouldn’t want technology to take over but if we can provide that option to a patient who wants the convenience of a video consultation that frees up their clinician’s time to focus on those who really need it. If med tech leads to a better allocation of clinical resources then more patients would benefit and that would be a good outcome for everyone."
Interview by Susan Field.