£2.2m ‘virtual clinic’ funding for digital healthcare company

The National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) has awarded a £2.2m grant to a digital healthcare firm for a research and development project to support patients with long-term health conditions.

The grant to Itecho Health, based at University of Leeds’ innovation hub, Nexus and co-founded by former NHS consultant Dr Adrian Brown and digital tech expert Lalit Suryawanshi, is the largest in the current series of the NIHR i4i (invention for innovation) Challenge awards.

It will enable the company to evaluate the experience of more than 5,000 patients with long-term health conditions, using its healthcare platform Ascelus as a “virtual clinic”, which patients are now being enrolled into, connecting them with clinicians.

Itecho Health is working with ten partner organisations on the research project, including King’s College Hospitals NHS Trust, Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, the University of Leeds, Sheffield Hallam University and King’s College, London.

Marc Auckland, chair of trustees at CLL Support, said: “This app could be of tremendous benefit for the 50,000 chronic Lymphocytic leukaemia patients across the UK.

“It will allow them to be monitored safely at home, reducing exposure to infection at hospitals plus savings in travel costs and lost workdays for those in employment.”

The study will examine the cost benefits of reducing face-to-face appointments and how much that would contribute to NHS ambitions to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Dr Brown said: “Our aim has always been to relieve pressure on our health service, by creating efficient virtual assessments, where patients with chronic conditions can more easily access information and communicate with their clinicians on their smartphones and devices.

“By identifying patients most at risk the healthcare platform can free up clinician time for more face-to-face appointments with patients who have more complex needs and enable more resources to be devoted to vital patient care.

“We’re also looking closely at digital inclusion to ensure no patients are left behind.”

Itecho Health is initially working with five charities: Leukaemia Care, Sickle Cell Society, CLL Support, Myeloma UK and MDS UK Patient Support Group. Myeloma UK health services manager, Dr Sandra Quinn, said: “It is fantastic to see the inclusion of charities like ours in this space as this is key to ensuring patients inform the progress of this work.

“It takes us even closer to our goals of diagnosing myeloma earlier, influencing positive changes in care and transforming the patient experience.”

Dr Brown added: “We’re delighted to receive the NIHR award, which is a massive boost to our growing team and enables us to accelerate our research and development.

“We’ll share our findings with patient groups, professionals and teams responsible for buying NHS services across the UK, with a view to adapting our platform for patients with many other long-term conditions.

“There is no doubt that being part of the Nexus innovation hub in Leeds was fundamental to achieving this funding.”

Ascelus enables patients who need regular monitoring to input and track their own symptoms and allows doctors to access their patients’ blood and pathology results online, review them and send on to their patients with any messages and advice.

The platform became a key focus for development during the pandemic as vulnerable patients shielded and cancelled routine hospital appointments.

Dr Veronica Swallow, Professor of Nursing and Healthcare, at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “Collaborating on this novel project led by Itecho Health allows us to work with patients, clinicians, carers and support groups within the haematology speciality in four NHS trusts to ensure the Ascelus-H (Haematology) platform being developed and evaluated during this project, is accessible and inclusive.”

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