HWITH one of the largest teaching hospitals in Europe at its heart and playing host to both the Department for Health’s northern headquarters and the new NHS Commissioning Board, it is not surprising Leeds finds itself at the forefront of a healthcare revolution.
But what is particularly notable about plans to make Leeds the UK’s centre of excellence for health technology is the economic opportunity available.
For healthcare is that rare thing in post-credit crunch Britain – a growth sector. The number of people employed in health and social care in Leeds since 2008 has grown by 17 per cent to more than 50,000. The city’s healthcare technologies business base is thriving, with more than 100 companies specialising in medical devices, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
Mark Goldstone, head of policy at Leeds, York and North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, is in no doubt about the scale of the opportunity.
“The stated ambition for the region to become the European capital of medical engineering, providing a home for companies from across the globe setting up operations in Europe, or looking for a base close to high-growth markets in Russia, the Middle East and Africa, is welcome,” he said.
“Leeds is already home to Europe’s largest teaching hospital; it has significant Department of Health personnel based locally and there is a wealth of talent and knowledge in our universities. Add to this mix the variety of medical devices and health-related private-sector companies, and there is a critical mass to create something very special.”
There are a string of successful local firms already making great strides. EMIS, which makes software for GPs, took on nearly 300 new staff last year. Another, Surgical Innovations, scooped a £5m grant from the Government’s regional growth fund to design and manufacture new instruments and products for keyhole surgery.
As part of its expansion, Surgical wants to become the cornerstone of a new “Medi Park” in the enterprise zone east of Leeds.
City leaders believe such success stories, combined with Leeds’s unparalleled digital infrastructure, mean overseas investors will quickly follow.
Leeds City Council chief executive Tom Riordan said: “We know there is a real growth market in linking up digital technology and healthcare, and the expertise in these areas which Leeds already has means we are excellently placed to bring in investment, jobs and progress.
“The Leeds health hub will support a focus for inward investment, and enable us to become a partner of choice for local, national and international businesses wishing to innovate in the health sector.”
One such concept is the long-mooted digitising of patient records, which was attempted by the previous Labour Government but abandoned after a hugely-expensive IT failure.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is determined to push the reform through successfully – albeit using interlinking local systems rather than Labour’s failed nationally co-ordinated approach.
Now Leeds believes it can be at the forefront of the NHS’s latest digital revolution. Mr Hunt believes better use of IT could account for savings of £4bn.
Jason Broch, a local GP who chairs the Leeds North Clinical Commissioning Group, said: “The ultimate goal for us is to drive up the quality of care that our patients. Information and IT play a huge role in helping us achieve this, particularly as we integrate health and social care teams across the city.”
Not everyone is convinced that Mr Hunt’s “paperless NHS” will be a glowing success, however. Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, warned people would need powerful reassurances that privacy would not be infringed.
“Paperless records are clearly of benefit to patients and doctors and can help improve care,” he said. “However, if the right protections aren’t in place from the start, you could end up doing huge damage to patient privacy, as it becomes much easier to pry into people’s medical records.
“The NHS has a terrible record in keeping information confidential, and there is a huge risk that patients will start to withhold information from their GPs because they do not believe it will stay private.”
But Leeds-based IT firms such as AQL are already working on the systems they insist will keep people’s medical records private.
Dr Adam Beaumont, AQL’s managing director, said it would be possible to create huge searchable databases of patient records that will allow researchers to track local health trends without seeing individual records.
“AQL, which already has a strong track record in building and hosting secure national Government applications, are working on a secure ‘filter’ layer which sits between the data owners and those who need to process the data… in order to prevent personal data being leaked,” he said.
“This means that regional or local statistics can be compiled, but also completely de-personalised.”