Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Jenny Thomas is based in London, and was appointed as the Programme Director for the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator in 2016 – the first digital health accelerator embedded within the NHS, for the NHS. Jenny and her amazing team of doctors, nurses and NHS managers help entrepreneurs and the NHS work better together, getting to the root of healthcare problems to implement solutions to improve patient care and save tax payers’ money. Now in its third year, the programme has supported 84 high-potential digital health businesses to refine and scale their solutions. Jenny has a background in healthcare delivery, joining the NHS via their Graduate Management Training Scheme and working afterwards in a number of operational and strategic roles in the UK and overseas. Jenny has a Masters in Healthcare Management and Leadership from Manchester Business School and an Executive MBA from London Business School.
Jenny, tell us a bit about your background and your projects so far.
I’m the Programme Director for the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator. We work with the best digital health businesses each year that have the potential to solve some of the biggest health challenges faced by patients and NHS organisations in London. Over the past two and a half years, we’ve supported over 80 amazing companies to refine their offer and scale to benefit more patients, make life easier for NHS staff, and help the NHS to save money.
How did you get into digital health industry? How has your career progressed since your degree? Has it been an easy industry to get into or have you had many challenges?
My passion for good healthcare started after university – I spent five months in India educating girls in healthcare and prevention. I then went on to join the NHS via their graduate scheme.
I’ve always been quite restless with the status quo and often sought out ways to make improvements – particularly when it came to the opportunity of new technology. But it was whilst I was working as a General Manager in a large London hospital and studying for an MBA at London Business School that I particularly realised the scale of the digital opportunity in healthcare. Initially I started working on a business idea to improve information and support to first time mums with a female classmate.
As I was doing this I met other start-ups and started exploring whether their solutions could address problems I was tackling as a General Manager in the NHS. This was five or so years ago, when working in health tech innovation in the NHS was significantly harder than it is now so it was slow work and I had a steep learning curve. When I managed to work with one SME successfully – DrDoctor – to make it easier for patients to access and change appointments, it gave me the confidence that barriers could be overcome and the prize was worth it. I felt so lucky when I learned about the opportunity to run the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator to work full time with health tech startups and the NHS to make a difference.
What does your current job role entail? What projects are you working on at the moment?
I run the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator programme which matches digital solutions to NHS healthcare problems to transform health and care. The year-long programme for 30 small businesses includes over 30 workshops, 20 networking events, 20 one to one clinics, 20 showcase opportunities in NHS organisations and 100+ hours of individual support. I deliver this with the support of an amazing team of doctors, nurses and managers and by working collaboratively with clinicians and healthcare experts to get to the root of health and care challenges and connect them with solutions.
How long did it take you to be where you are now? What was the biggest obstacle?
I think it’s less about what was the biggest obstacle and more following my heart and doing what I feel passionate about.
I’m passionate about the potential of digital to improve healthcare for everyone I love. I feel it’s so important to continually embrace new ways of doing things but that this should be done thoughtfully and by considering people’s needs carefully. I can still get frustrated by how difficult it can be to make change happen in the NHS, but the answer is to understand the reasons behind this, and do what you can to make it easier.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
I’m really lucky to be doing a job I love. There are lots of things I’m proud of in my career. Despite setting up the Accelerator from scratch a few years ago, small businesses from our first two cohorts have reported we are responsible for a third of their growth and 66% of their fundraising. Our net promoter score is in the ‘excellent’ category. But the best bit is knowing we have helped to save the NHS millions and have made life better and easier for many staff and patients.
If a friend asked, I would say gaining an MBA from London Business School whilst working full time as a NHS General Manager. Right now, I’d say working full time and being a mum to a two year-old, and feeling like I am doing ok in both camps.
What does the #WomenInTech movement mean to you? What are the challenges of being a woman in health tech / STEM?
There may not be many of us, but I think we are at the beginning stages of a thrilling journey. Of course there are challenges, but I think these are more expansive than whether I’m tackling them as a man or a woman. I see being a woman in health tech at this stage of the game as a great opportunity.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and entrepreneurs in this industry out there?
I give this advice a lot: be very clear about the problem you are solving – truly understand it and who wants that problem to be solved.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked with over 80 SMEs and listened to hundreds of pitches. Every business, and every team has different strengths and weaknesses – listen and try and surround yourself with those that can help address your gaps.
It’s not easy being an entrepreneur in healthcare. You have to be brave for sure. But it is possible to succeed – whether that’s raising money or gaining traction in the NHS. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
In your opinion, what will be the key trends in the health tech and digital health industry in the next five years and where do you see it heading?
The NHS can be a tough market for entrepreneurs to crack – sales cycles are often long and it is particularly slow when you’re starting out. However, I can see it is getting easier. There is a real digital policy push and programmes like the DigitalHealth.London Accelerator now actively support entrepreneurs. Most importantly of all, the conversations I have today with NHS staff are very different to the ones I was having five years ago – getting digital is very much on the agenda. In the next five years, I foresee this really ramping up.
My experience tells me that there are still a lot of basic challenges to address within healthcare that don’t exist in other industries. Access to Wi-Fi, use of up-to-date computer systems, and interoperability are still huge issues in many parts of the NHS, and can be blockers to the benefits that digital could bring. I think a key trend in the UK health space over the next few years will be around getting these basics right, as we can’t progress without them.
Along these lines, I also think digital solutions will be increasingly used to improve the logistics of healthcare – not just treatment. We’ve already been doing some really positive work around managing A&E flow using digital, with innovations like Infinity Health being increasingly used across the NHS to service needs around portering.
I think there will be an increasing trend around helping patients to manage their own conditions, and in particular long-term conditions. There’s been real progress in digital in areas like diabetes – I believe we’ll see more progress elsewhere. We’re all becoming increasingly required to take more responsibility for our own health, and digital technologies can really help us to do that safely and effectively.
Finally, I see AI and big data as having huge potential, both in terms of how healthcare is delivered and how better treatments are made available for cancer, heart disease and much more. We’re now starting to see real, practical examples of AI and big data technologies being applied, whereas up until now there has been a lot of hype and not much traction. Companies like Skin Analytics, Transforming Systems, and MySense are showing us how they, and others like them, are making a real, tangible difference to people’s lives today, and I can only see these improving as they mature.
Who are your three inspirational women in health tech and digital health?I know you’ve asked for three but I’m going to have to go with four:
Firstly, Anna King for her foresight in coming up with the idea for DigitalHealth.London in the first place, securing the funding for the Accelerator, and coming up with too many other novel ways to count of driving health tech.
Secondly, Tara Donnelly, interim Chief Digital Officer for NHS England, who in her previous role threw the full weight of her support, positivity and creativity behind me, my team and our companies. Much of our success is down to her.
Thirdly, Maxine Macintosh, co-founder of One HealthTech. I’m in absolute awe of what she has achieved for healthtech and women – and she does it all with such grace and humour.
Finally, I could not miss out Yinka Makinde, who runs DigitalHealth.London outside of the Accelerator. She has worked tirelessly these past three years to advance the digital health ecosystem in London. A few weeks ago the first cohort of the Digital Pioneer Fellowship, which she established, graduated. Listening to how a diverse group of front line staff have not only grown in confidence but were transforming clinical pathways for the better made me feel incredibly proud, and seeing the second cohort launch was a high point.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.