By Gordon Arnott
“There’s nothing more important than our good health – that’s our principal capital asset” – words spoken by the late US presidential candidate and healthcare reformer Senator Arlen Specter in relation to the world’s biggest economy, but equally applicable to the North East of England.
Healthcare professionals, economists and public policy officials agree that a healthy workforce drives economic growth and social wellbeing. The North East is a developing economy looking to seize all the opportunities that innovation presents to business, but the current high levels of poor health outcomes and economic inactivity due to ill health form a barrier to greater wealth creation and prosperity. This is something which the region needs to address.
The North East has the highest rate of economic inactivity in England. Between July 2014 and June 2015, 25.3 per cent of the working age population of the region was economically inactive, with over a quarter of that inactivity being due to ill health.
The regional unemployment rate remains the highest in the UK at 7.9 per cent, while life expectancy is lower than the English average: men and women in the North East typically live over a year less than the national average of 79.4 years and 83.1 years respectively.
The region’s premature mortality rate – the loss of lives for reasons considered preventable – stands at 224.9 per 100,000 of the population, compared to the English average of 182.7. There have been many policies and programmes over the years aimed at improving health and social progress in the region, with varying degrees of success.
The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is working with partners to develop an innovative project that will turn these health issues into a business opportunity – capturing the best new ideas and innovations to tackle health outcomes, with a positive impact on the local economy.
Organisations from all sectors will be encouraged to pitch innovative ideas to tackle these issues as part of a Health Grand Challenge. The challenge will seek bright new ways to generate healthier outcomes in the population, aiming to support some of those who are out of work through ill health back into employment and those with a health condition to stay in work.
The North East has a world-class business, medical and academic base on its doorstep from which to lead the fight against health inequalities. The region already pioneers drug discovery, supplies research tools and produces speciality chemicals alongside cutting edge academic discoveries into agerelated diseases and debilitating genetic conditions.
The Health Grand Challenge looks to continue and expand these opportunities, and proposals will be sought from companies across the innovation spectrum to tackle three themes that encompass the health challenges of the North East:
- Giving children and young people the best start in life.
- Ensuring that the working age population is as healthy and productive as possible, supporting people to manage long-term conditions and to stay in work or return to work.
- Improving longevity and increased years of good health for older people.
Acclaimed entrepreneur Dr Arnab Basu, chief executive of Kromek, a County Durham-based developer of radiation detection solutions for medical, nuclear and security screening, is chairing a steering group to drive the challenge forward. “The impact that the population’s poor health has on the North East economy cannot be overestimated,” he says. “It reduces the number of active workers required to drive the economic growth of the area.
“Health is an extremely pressing problem to deal with in terms of the regional economy. Our Health Grand Challenge hopes to target these health and social challenges by providing innovative solutions that reduce the region’s drivers to poor health.”
The North East LEP has developed one of the most comprehensive, imaginative and impressive innovation programmes in the UK, with the aim of becoming a European innovation hotspot. “Ultimately, the Health Grand Challenge will harness processes of redesign, technological and social innovation to tackle the key barriers to good health that currently exist for the population of the North East and provide new business opportunities,” Dr Basu says.
“Creating a healthy and more productive workforce is immensely important for businesses to grow and thrive in our region. Any organisation from any sector that has an innovative idea to address our defined health issues will be able to pitch to be part of the challenge.
“Our aim is to create a happier, healthier and more productive population, re-energising the North East economy by helping to achieve the primary North East LEP objective of creating more and better jobs. This is in line with our aspiration to stimulate and enable new products, processes and applications to come to market as detailed in our strategic economic plan.”
The LEP is exploring a number of funding options to deliver the Health Grand Challenge, and hopes to launch a pilot challenge in the summer. “Health is a key driver of economic growth but can often be seen as a separate issue,” says North East LEP economist Fiona Thom. “However, improving our health outcomes and inequalities is fundamental to the prosperity and sustainability of the North East.
“A healthier population means a healthier supply of innovative, productive workers with benefits for businesses in terms of increased productivity, and benefits for wider society in terms of improved wellbeing. The healthier you are, generally the more productive you are at work, and most work is good for your mental and physical health.
“The main focus of the challenge will be to generate innovative ideas which will target the social health barriers to work, inequalities and worklessness in the region, and support people to manage their own and their family’s health on a day-to-day basis.”
The high levels of economic inactivity in the North East are partly due to the heavy industrial past which left some people too ill to work. Other socioeconomic factors such as high levels of deprivation and generations of households without work are also acknowledged as playing their part.
“The Health Grand Challenge is one of the beacon projects for the North East LEP,” says Hans Möller, the LEP’s innovation director. “It could make a real difference in terms of finding new solutions to one of the challenges we have, which is health.
“Opportunities will be available to business to develop solutions in collaboration with the public and with the voluntary sector. New and radical ways of dealing with our health issues are needed to create a better quality of life for people and to create great jobs within those successful companies.
“We could see these innovative products or services in place in five to ten years from now. I would see success as having picked the right health challenge, finding the solutions to address that and thereby creating business opportunities for people in the region and potentially beyond.”