Published: 08/01/2004, Volume II4, No. 5886 Page 28 29
Health service staff often invent pieces of equipment or software, but the NHS has not rushed to patent its ideas. Steve Mathieson looks at the financial gains to be made from research and development work
For many years, UK universities have taken advantage of inventions, processes and other ideas created by their staff, sometimes raising large amounts of money from the exploitation of intellectual property. They support research staff to patent or otherwise protect their ideas, then help commercialise them. In return, they take a slice of benefits.
Only in the past few years has the health service started to do likewise. The Department of Health appointed Dr Tony Bates as NHS intellectual property adviser in 1998, to improve exploitation of the health service's research and development work. But he says: 'That was never going to be sufficient. I was well aware the major part of intellectual property generated would be from the delivery of patient care.'
He mentions a real example, where a medical physicist developed a new piece of equipment for measuring whether blood was flowing under a burn. That is a real medical need - you could stop skin grafts and unnecessary operations: 'With a million people working for the NHS, there were going to be many examples of employees coming up with work, but with nowhere to go.Any top NHS manager will cite examples of staff developing a new piece of equipment or software, doing nothing, then buying it from somewhere else.'
So Dr Bates helped set up nine regional 'knowledge hubs' covering much of England: Scotland has a similar organisation, while Wales and Northern Ireland are following suit. The English hubs, which tend to match the areas covered by regional development agencies, offer their health service units expertise in developing intellectual property.
Set up two years ago, the nine hubs cover London, the Midlands and the North, but not the South West, South East and east of England. 'The areas around Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol and Southampton are some of the strongest areas of the country, ' says Dr Bates. 'You could accuse us of having postcode intellectual property management, which we do not want.'
However, these regions are bidding in a new DTI funding round this autumn which could fill the gaps. In the meantime, health service staff in southern England with a bright idea are referred to local RDAs, or the forerunner to knowledge hubs - biotechnology exploitation platforms.
One of the best-developed hubs, Trustech in Manchester, was originally a BEP. The organisation is promoting itself within the North West's health service using posters showing four innovations it has supported. Two are classic 'inventions': a disposable surgical instrument pack designed by the eyebank team at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital to counter infection risk from re-use; and a hand surgery table, invented by John Martin, senior bioengineer at Whiston Hospital, part of St Helens and Knowsley Hospitals trust.
In both cases, the products have been commercially licensed with Trustech's help.Mr Martin's table, which secures a hand while allowing access and vision from any position, has now been licensed for manufacture by UK firm Medical Device Management.
Trustech is also promoting further innovations: the other posters feature gestational age calculation software, created by deputy superintendent radiographer at Royal Bolton Hospital Marie Clenton, and a narrative skills learning pack by Becky Shanks, a speech and language therapist at Stockport primary care trust.
'We had a lot of people to do a hearts and minds job with, ' says Trustech project director Keith Chantler, also associate medical director of Central Manchester/Manchester Children's University Hospitals trust. 'But two years on, we have a steady pipeline of good ideas that are going down a commercial route.'More than 90 per cent are licensed to existing companies rather than used to create new ones, he says.However, Dr Bates convinced the DoH to change the rules, so trusts can take a shareholding in companies formed to market a product.
The knowledge hubs have broader aims than their university equivalents, which exist primarily to earn money.Apart from boosting the national and, ideally, the local economy, the hubs look to make good deals for the rest of the health service, through negotiated discounts.
'The NHS is a consumer of its own intellectual property, ' says Dr Bates.His example of the burn-depth meter could eventually prevent 30 per cent of skin-graft operations - good for patients, and for the health service.
Some innovations will create income although the hubs say it is not enough to make them self-funding - at least not for several years. For the money-spinners, both Trustech and Medichip - which covers South West and South East London strategic health authority areas - suggest a third goes to the inventors, a third to their department and a third to the trust.
Someone with a good idea should inform the trust's lead officer for intellectual property, or if there is not one, the SHA or knowledge hub, says Medichip director Dr Richard Zheng. 'Trusts can be bogged down with inspections and waiting lists, ' he says. 'But if there was no innovation, we wouldn't have MRI scans - we'd be treating people by bleeding their arms.'
To protect an idea, normally through a patent but sometimes through other forms of legal protection such as copyright, inventors need to start the legal process before announcing their work. 'They shouldn't have any premature disclosure, ' says Dr Zheng.
'Consultants hate being told they can't publish. But in the eyes of the law, if they have disclosed it you can't patent.'
Andrew Priest, a senior associate at law firm Masons, says this can be interpreted very strictly. 'It could be the inventor going down the pub and talking to his mates. Even discussing it with your wife could put it at risk. Be very careful who you talk to without some kind of confidentiality agreement in place.'
Even if the Patent Office does not pick up on a disclosure, someone could use it to challenge the patent at a later stage - this means good documentation of work, such as completed lab-books, is vital.
Since its creation in July 2002, Medichip has handled around one new project a week, and one commercial deal every six weeks. 'Credit should be given to the local trusts, which are so innovative, 'Dr Zheng says.
Those involved in the hubs are enthusiastic about their potential. The process may not produce big new drugs, but it will generate new diagnostic kits, devices, management tools, software and uses for existing treatments, according to Dr Bates: 'The NHS presents the largest source of untapped intellectual property in the country, ' he says.
National Innovations www. innovations. nhs. uk
Trustech (North West of England) www. trustech. org. uk
Medichip (South East London and South West London strategic health authority areas) www. medichip. org. uk
Potential is growing for trusts to benefit from patented innovation through nine regional knowledge hubs.
Legal protection of intellectual property is essential to ensure copyright.
'Inventions' can boost trust finances, support the local economy and spread innovation throughout the NHS.