Selling to the NHS to enable its digital transformation

By Ben Judah

DrDoctor is a digital health company transforming the way hospitals and patients communicate, by using technology to tackle the financial strain on the NHS - one hospital at a time. We bring patient correspondence into the 21st century, to automate processes, collect outcomes, measure value and drive down costs. Our platform improves appointment scheduling, increasing clinic efficiency by reducing no-shows and filling empty slots. 

You’ll learn:

• Why the NHS doesn’t (like) change and how to achieve ‘gentle disruption’
• That even with big organisations you’re selling to a person, not a company
• Why slow and steady will always win the race

Why the NHS doesn’t (like) change

Consider Atlas – the Titan holding the world. Any slight shift in bodyweight or adjustment to the weight of the globe resting on his shoulders could result in disaster. 

The NHS is an organisation with around a quarter of a billion patient contacts per year. The risk that ‘change’ brings is colossal and because of this, the idea of ‘disruption’ is justifiably terrifying. 

It is for this reason that we at DrDoctor practice and preach an iterative approach – what we affectionately call ‘gentle disruption’ – where change is introduced in an evolutionary, patient and well-planned way.

This type of change has to come from the inside out, with the proponents of change listening to stakeholders at every level, aligning motivations and incentivising all those involved. From the patient to the admin team, doctors to senior managers, everyone must have the same goal and be pulling for the same outcome. 

The NHS is an organisation that is wary of change, but it is the opposite of an organisation against change. On every level, digital transformation is viewed as an opportunity if done right.

Selling to people, not companies

No company has ever bought anything. B2B versus B2C is more of a change in process than actual change in buyer. 

It would be an error of judgement to view a company, business or indeed government as the final purchaser of any product. There is always a person (or people) involved at every stage of the decision-making process. 

Different products or services are interesting to specific groups of users within the NHS and helpfully, they are signposted by job title. For example, being a technology business, we are interested at speaking primarily with CIOs or CCIOs (Chief Clinical Information Officers) within an NHS Foundation Trust. 

Unfortunately, within an organisation the size of the NHS, roles of this nature rarely share the exact objectives or responsibilities. Different Trusts and hospitals naturally have different technological needs. This means it is imperative to understand:

• Who cares about the obstacle we are trying to solve enough to deploy sizable chunks of their energy to solving it?

• Who has the decision-making power to implement it? (This is not always the same person as above)

• Who controls the budget to make this happen?

• Are there stakeholders who may raise objections?

Once we have identified these individuals, we can move forwards with the process of selling our solution. In a simple case, this can be one person, but it’s always best to be prepared for multiple stakeholders.

Selling technology in the NHS presents a unique challenge – forward thinking individuals who understand the benefits of new technology and can deliver results are often moved and can occupy a range of positions at various hospital Trusts. 

These movers and shakers may not be able to complete the project you started with them, therefore getting the buy in from those surrounding the role is crucial.

Slow and steady

The tortoise and the hare is a great analogy when trying to sell to the NHS – slow and steady wins the race. Designing your sales funnel to fit the style of long term relationship building is key. 

The average sales cycle from initial contact to signed contract can be around 18 months (aeons in the tech world) and where people are moving job roles at an increased rate this presents a unique challenge. 

Our cofounder Tom Whicher is an alumnus of the NHS Innovation Accelerator and has had the fortune of developing close relationships with many of the best and brightest people in the NHS. It is these relationships that make a difference. 

Regardless of a person’s position at the outset, having close ties to smart, motivated and driven people within the NHS is a great position to be in. These individuals will rise to positions of influence and will be conscious of companies who are their ‘new found friends’ following promotion.

When selling into healthcare and especially into the NHS, patience is the answer – regardless of the question – but momentum relies on nuance. It is the responsibility of the innovator to drive the project, ensuring that it doesn’t stagnate, while remaining sensitive to the buyer’s cautious outlook and need for time. 

It would be an error in judgement to assume that because your company’s product or service is being discussed internally a sale will come to fruition. Instead, the first step of the process has begun and as the innovator you must be the engine of change, swapping gears where necessary. 

The proof is in the pudding

Three years ago, our co-founder Tom Whicher met with Jenny Thomas, the general manager for Women’s Services at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ at a networking event, where they discussed one of Jenny’s major aims for the year - the reduction of DNA rates across her department. 

The next few months had Tom meeting with Jenny and her team, drawing up various solutions, but each struggled when it was introduced to the IT and Information Governance departments at the Trust. 

Their concern with security and ‘new way of working’ pushed them to err on the side of caution when embracing new technology, especially from a newer company. Jenny and Tom then agreed to create a Proof of Concept trial across her department, manually processing the data in a secure environment. 

The results were astounding, but rather than going straight back to the previous blockers, Tom invited around 15 other general managers from Guy’s and St. Thomas’ to a pizza and beer learning session. 

They discussed openly the concerns, data driven insights and results from the Proof of Concept trial and through constructive dialogue throughout the evening, piqued the desire of the others in the room. 

This led to a full-scale procurement process of the DrDoctor platform throughout the Trust, with a successful rollout to all outpatients’ departments beginning in April 2016. This has led to a 30% reduction in DNA rates and savings of £2.6 million within the first year of full deployment. 

The NHS has achieved an impressive amount in the last 70 years, but in relation to the illustrious history of the United Kingdom, it is still a baby - these years are formative and the need to embrace change is profound. 

There so is much to develop, learn and improve and if done correctly – pragmatically, powered by internal stakeholders and fuelled by innovators – we will surely leave a legacy for decades and even centuries to come.


Ben Judah is the Head of Marketing and Communications at DrDoctor.

Twitter: @BenJudah and @WeAreDrDoctor