When tech companies try to disrupt healthcare, they just create the NHS

In the Belgian startup scene, companies are trying to use technology to solve healthcare’s problems. But the system they're creating already exists. 

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This week I’ve been treated to a tech tour of Belgium, checking out companies that are “disrupting” industries including dining, finance, cinema, and audiovisual design. Among these sightly sexier topics, I was introduced to a huge number of health-related tech companies, working in areas like bio-tech, pharmaceuticals, and healthcare. Many of these were housed in Charleroi’s tech incubator CATCH Charleroi. 

CATCH is, essentially, trying to regenerate the Charleroi area which is currently known mainly for its lads-on-tour, Ryanair-dominated airport. At the incubator, there are companies focused on design, creative industries, and manufacturing, in an attempt to tip the balance away from “This is an airport with some buildings around it” to “We are a real city! We swear! We also happen to have an airport.”

But with bio-tech, cancer-tech, and osteo-tech all on offer, CATCH is dominated by health technology, and one particular company stuck out. INAH – the Institute of Analytics for Health – offers a digital solution to healthcare woes, by putting patients’ data together on a national scale into one easy-to-access data hub. It also has a research and development side that helps give well-researched health advice not only to doctors, but also to patients signed onto the service. All of this data, all in one place, means that doctors have far better access to both health information generally, and also on each patient they’re dealing with. This makes them better equipped to give the best diagnosis when a patient needs it. 

In other words, INAH is trying to create a system in which patients pay in once, get access to mutliple doctors depending on their location, and which generates useful research based on all of that patient info. It treats this idea like a novel, unheard of response to a systemic problem. 

Except, in reality, this problem has been solved for decades. INAH is creating the NHS – a single place doctors and patients can go to in order to get all of their healthcare needs without multiple surprise payments.

This seems to happen a lot with this kind of thing: when tech tries to “disrupt” healthcare provision, it more often than not just creates a nationalised healthcare service. Centralised data on patients so different doctors can request patients’ files? Sounds great. One easy payment for all your medical needs? Great for patients. Research and development departments to help give standardised advice across all doctors? What a clever use of data. An affordable alternative to a system that makes you pay at every stage of care? Useful! 

In fairness to INAH, Belgium, doesn’t have the same healthcare system that the UK has – so the demand to create an NHS-style healthcare provider actually exists. And the NHS has been struggling to centralise its patient data into one system for years. Indeed, the NHS has had widespread issues with making its data accessible across cities, regions, and practices and the painstaking problem shows that, unsurprisingly, an NHS-style system isn’t perfect. Even so, tech companies are spending millions to create a system that does the same thing as putting everyone under a national healthcare service – and treat that “disruption” like it’s rocket science. 

Tech getting into healthcare doesn’t always mean merely reinventing the wheel. Other companies in the same tech incubator are trying to solve problems that even the NHS couldn’t expect to do on its own. OncoDNA focuses on creating personalised cancer treatments for cancer patients, working with doctors and oncological specialists to see what therapies work best depending on the cancer victim’s DNA and matching new patients’ DNA to previous cancer patients’ to find “twins” (in order to then apply previously successful response techniques).

Texere, meanwhile, builds robots that handle bone tissue needed for the regeneration bones for people with osteoporosis, and so avoiding cross contamination, the most common with bone tissue replacement, which is contaminated the second it is touched by human hands. It also has quite altruistic aims, hoping that by reducing high amounts of tissue waste will make bone tissue actually affordable to the average person, and in just two years of existence have had some pretty stunning results. 

Since we’re all living in the same capitalist hellscape, these innovations won’t magically be forthcoming from a state system. So the need for tech companies to do this kind of work is there – and it could ultimately save, extend, and improve thousands of people’s lives as these companies grow out of the startup stage.

However, tech disruption of healthcare provision itself ultimately leads to the same end: a streamlined system where you pay in a straightforward way and have access to a whole host of health professionals who can all access your patient information in the same centralised data base. Yes, that is indeed a good idea. That’s probably why that sort of system already exists. 

At the moment, INAH is operating across only a handful of hospitals in Belgium, but hopes to expand on a national scale over the course of the next two years. And for the sake of patients, it would probably be an enormous help in Belgium where this doesn’t, nationally, exist. But what’s striking about this sliver of Belgium’s tech scene – and, really, any country’s tech scene where fully nationalised healthcare doesn’t exist – is that, no matter how you spin it, it’s ultimately leading to the same solution. And that solution is far from an unprecedented disruption.

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer.