Meet Nick de Pennington, CEO and Founder of Ufonia, an autonomous telemedicine platform supported by Oxford AHSN and Yorkshire & Humber AHSN. Nick discusses how his innovation supports clinicians to avoid burnout and is assisting the NHS to manage the backlog built up by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as well as his background as a neurosurgeon and his tips for budding innovators.
Tell us about your innovation – what and why?
Ufonia is an autonomous telemedicine platform. Using AI technology, we deliver a telephone call to patients, as if they were getting a regular call from a doctor or nurse, and have a clinical consultation in a way that feels natural.
The first use of this has been in follow-up care for cataract patients. Around 500,000 cataract operations are carried out in the NHS every year, and it’s the most common operation in the world.
Pre-coronavirus our biggest challenge was convincing people that phone consultations could be just as effective as face-to-face. Now they’re used routinely and Ufonia is helping to support the backlog of patients created by the pandemic. We’ve been working extensively with the Ophthalmology Department at Buckinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust as part of an Innovate UK grant. To manage their cataract surgery follow-up they previously staffed a telephone clinic five days a week with a nurse. Using our system we are able to reduce that to one day a week, allowing nurses to do more valuable work whilst the number of procedures has increased. We want to enable people to work at the top of their license, so to speak.
What was the ‘lightbulb’ moment?
There wasn’t one lightbulb moment, it was more like a series of moments that built up as I went all the way through training to become a neurosurgeon. Neurosurgery has many challenges, but the reality is that a huge amount is routine and low complexity, and the most significant realisation for me was understanding that I was replaceable.
On the back of that the inception of Ufonia was after I won a hackathon competition sponsored by IBM, around using their AI technologies. I thought that I could combine a bunch of the technologies together to replicate clinicians doing low-complexity tasks.
What’s been your innovator journey highlight to date?
It has to be the first call that we did to a patient following their cataract surgery. We were all nervous about whether it would work as planned, and so it was amazing when the patient had a natural conversation with our system.
How have AHSNs supported you?
Oxford AHSN have been supportive in several ways, including the core pragmatic health economic analysis, identifying pilot sites and supporting grant funding.
We’re now looking into how Oxford AHSN can help with scaling our innovation, because we’re now looking to move on from the proof-of-concept work and early evaluation to commercial deployments. We’re aiming to take that preliminary work and hopefully with Oxford AHSN’s support, we’ll be able to scale across the region and then nationally.
We’ve also received great support from the Yorkshire and Humber AHSN. We’ve been part of their Propel programme, which was really useful. In particular we’ve been working with Pete Waddington to communicate the environmental benefits of our system to providers in their region.
What’s been your toughest obstacle to date?
I think we’re at that point which is about moving from research, development and innovation to commercial deployment. The single necessary condition for a start-up company is a paying customer. It’s quite difficult in the NHS where a lot of clinicians are somewhat isolated from the commercial reality, because it’s a public sector entity, that actually we have to have people pay for this product for us to grow, scale and deliver to more patients. So that transition to commercial is really tough, but it’s something that we’re working with the AHSN on, and it’s the biggest make or break.
Hopes for the future?
The hope for the future is we allow more people to have care delivered, and that that we free clinicians up from repetitive tasks that can cause burnout so they can do more valuable things with their time. We also want to provide a service where we can help with the challenges post-coronavirus, such as the backlog, and we do it in a way where patients get a great experience too.
A typical day for you would include
Up until recently it was sitting in my office at home on video calls, but now we’re able to go out and meet new sites and have many more face-to-face conversations. It’s very varied in terms of the stakeholders we engage with, particularly as we expand with new conversations across different clinical specialities.
Best part of your job now?
Personally, it’s agreeing those new partnerships, which is a big dopamine hit.
What bits of advice would you give budding innovators?
‘Just do it’ has been key for me. I went very deep in my clinical work and I think people think that’s very brave to stop. But I think it’s the opposite – I completed all my training and have all the certificates to hang on the wall. In fact, I think it’s braver to take the leap earlier because there’s so much uncertainty. If you feel the itch for where there’s a problem, then you should seize the opportunity because if not now, when?
You’ve also got to have a good team. Having people you enjoy working with, trust and rely on is inevitably important to your own wellbeing. So do it – but also have some people who have got your back!