It’s been an extraordinary month for the creators of secure messaging platform, Hospify, as they became the first NHS-approved clinical messaging app for healthcare professionals. As the NHS looks to digital tools to support healthcare delivery through the COVID-19 crisis, Hospify has seen a huge growth in sign-ups from hospitals and clinics looking to improve and maintain communication.
Founded in 2014 by two NHS surgeons, Neville Dastur and Charles Nduka, and digital platform specialist James Flint, Hospify is a communications platform designed specifically for health teams and patients. The free-at-the-point-of-use platform offers compliant and secure messaging at its core, providing an alternative to the likes of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
The idea was borne out of frustration with communication tools available in the NHS that were at odds with messaging tools the founders took for granted in their personal lives.
James Flint, Co-Founder and CEO, said:
“The idea came about when Neville and Charles, who were both tech savvy and used to using their smartphones in their personal lives, became very frustrated at being forced to use hospital systems that were filled with bottlenecks. One of their patients nearly died because of poor communication and they felt that it wouldn’t be difficult to create something that improved the situation. They pulled me into the conversation and we set out to make something that replicated the ease of WhatsApp but in a compliant way, with some extra features that would be useful in a healthcare setting.”
The free Hospify app keeps it as simple as possible for the user, offering one-to-one and group messaging and unlimited photo messages along with additional features to protect privacy such as a built-in six-digit passcode, the masking of personal details, and no harvesting of behavioural or other metadata that could be resold for marketing purposes. All messages are not only end-to-end encrypted but are deleted from Hospify’s cloud servers after use. They are then only stored on the user’s mobile device, and even then, are automatically deleted after 30 days. Flint was unyielding from the start that personal information would be protected at all costs, even when up against people who thought that no one would take any notice of GDPR.
Alongside its core messaging service, the company also offers the Hospify Hub, an online admin tool that allows teams to come together in one simple, compliant messaging system for both mobile and web. Users can create their own Hospify community, communicate with large numbers of users using the broadcast service, and access a web-based version of the app that stores data for longer than the mobile version.
Passing the NHS test
In its year-long journey to being listed in the NHS Apps Library, the Hospify app underwent a rigorous assessment process to ensure its safety and efficacy in seven key areas, including clinical safety, code security, and data protection.
While some areas could be easily ‘checked off’, other areas such as clinical safety required much more work. This involved bringing on board advisors and took months to get through the audit process.
“We built the platform with compliance in mind from day one, adhering to standards and making use of the NHS toolkits and guidance. We are so excited and relieved to have the NHS Apps Library sign off – this is as good as it gets. It’s been a long journey to get here and pass the seven areas of approval, but this is the sweet spot. We’re the only authorised messaging service on the NHS Apps Library and that may be the case for quite a while as the Library has been closed to new entrants during the COVID-19 crisis, so this has put us in a good position to serve NHS staff when they need it the most.”
Coming from a media and data science background, James had to get to grips with the health system and he credits MedCity with supporting him from the start. He & Neville Dastur met with Hak Salih, Digital Health Lead, five years ago when they were first structuring Hospify and looking for investment. In his advisory capacity at MedCity, Hak helped explain the digital health world, including connecting him with the right life sciences bodies and signposting the routes into the NHS.
“The key connection for us was being introduced by MedCity to the AHSNs, who supported us to really understand the procurement process. Then we were introduced to, and won a place on, the Kent Surrey Sussex Digital Health Accelerator, which gave us additional credibility, and led to our application for the NHS Apps Library. MedCity played a crucial role at the start of our journey by directing us through the network and if we hadn’t had that route in, I don’t think we would have succeeded, and we certainly wouldn’t be where we are now.”
Despite raising some early funding from Innovate UK, the nature of the healthcare industry has made raising money tough for the team. They realised early on that investors are more wary of investing in a company that is trying to sell into the NHS, as they know how difficult it is. However, they recently closed a £500k funding round with funding coming from Bethnal Green Ventures and a number of angel investors. Bethnal Green Ventures, Europe’s leading early-stage Tech for Good VC, have supported them since the start when they invested £15,000 as part of their incubator, and have since followed on with £50,000 in their latest round.
The funding and NHS Apps Library approval have aligned with the health industry’s drive to limit the impact of COVID-19, which is spurring the NHS to adopt digital health technologies at scale. As trusts and CCGs are identifying solutions to support remote working and limit patient contact, Hospify has seen an exponential rise in sign-up rates.
They have seen over 1000 user sign-ups a day along with over 100 hospital and clinic sign-ups to the trial version of the Hospify Hub (including nearly 30 NHS hospital trusts and several health boards); and an officially sanctioned roll-out to all 10,000 staff at London North West University Healthcare Trust. The app has risen to #21 in the medical category of the Apple Store and hit the top of the Google Search results for “healthcare messaging apps”. Even as information governance rules have been relaxed to allow clinicians to use tools such as WhatsApp during the crisis, it is recognised that this cannot be a long-term solution to health communication needs and so clinicians, GPs and CCG leads are engaging with Hospify at a rate never seen before.
“It really has surpassed our expectations. We closed our latest funding round and got the NHS Apps Library approval in February, which we announced at Digital Health Rewired and which sparked quite a bit of interest. Then, literally the next week, when COVID-19 really hit the UK, suddenly everyone was looking for messaging tools to support their remote working. A big moment for us was when Sonia Patel, the new NHSX CIO, tweeted that she had rolled it out to 10,000 staff at London North West, so we have been supporting them remotely to get them set up. Everything is changing day to day, and while of course we would rather not be in the midst of a pandemic, we are pleased to be able to play a small role in helping health and care workers at this time.”
The Hospify operational core team of just four people, spread across London, Lancashire and Farnham, have brought on additional support to manage the influx of requests. They recently hired a Head of Operations and have temporarily recruited six UCL medical students, who had all their lectures cancelled, to support them in running an online helpdesk. They have also been speeding up development of the app by working with agencies who have had their work scaled back, allowing Hospify to fill that gap and provide new job opportunities.
Turning point for the NHS
The outbreak has created opportunities for digital health developers to help the NHS with tools to support remote communication, telemedicine, data analytics and automation of care pathways. Hospify has seen a shift in approach by the NHS and patients to an eagerness to try new technologies and they see this as a turning point for healthcare.
“Every clinician I’ve spoken to recently has said that they’ve seen a transformation in the procurement of digital tools. In the past, a conversation about procurement and adoption could take two years, but it is now being done in two weeks, or even two days. Clinicians are feeling empowered to try new things and they are not afraid to give it a go. It’s great to see NHS Digital and NHSX making a concerted effort to accelerate new technologies and scale up, and they don’t want to go back to how it was before. By the time we come out of this crisis, which could take a year or more, we will see a real change in the way that healthcare is delivered.”
And it’s not just the clinicians who are reaping the benefits. Patients too, many of whom were resistant to using digital tools, have become much more willing to try technology to interact with clinicians. This change in mindset, particularly older patients who may not have trusted technology previously, could transform the way that GP surgeries operate in the future.
For digital health companies wanting to make the most of this opportunity, James advises that the most important thing is to really concentrate on their USP.
“This is a time to focus on the thing that you do best. Make sure your core service is working and scaling really well and that you deliver on what people expect from you. Don’t worry about that long feature list you want to build. Instead, build your reputation for delivery and reliability and customer support. Lots of people are going to try your tool and if they like it the chances are they’ll stick with you for the long term. Where companies often go wrong is by over-promising and under-delivering, so make sure the opposite is true. Everything else can wait.”