Richard Smith’s HealthCamp for innovators

Richard Smith I associate camps with wood smoke, burnt sausages, and filled latrines marked with crosses, but HealthCamp is different. It’s about innovation, and I attended my first one last week—at the soulless Excel Centre in Docklands, LondonHeathCamp begins with lightning talks. In under two minutes participants must pose one problem they’d like to discuss. We had 21 people—many of them doctors, most of them young, and all of them entrepreneurs—pose problems.

How might we do better at sharing failures? How could online patient feedback be developed in Italy? How could the NHS cut its carbon footprint by 80%? How could patient inserts be improved? How could the undoubted skills of people with autistic disorders be better employed for society’s benefit?

Entrepreneurs, I noticed, are interested in how questions. I thought back to Bill Clinton saying that it is how questions that are important and that he’d spent too much of his political life answering what and why questions.

After the lightning talks we voted on the top nine that we wanted to discuss. I was thrilled that 10 people voted for my question—”How can we get ordinary doctors to publish lots of ordinary case reports?”—and it made it into the top nine. But the question that came top was “How to get people currently running on machines in gyms to do use their energy to do something socially useful?”

The audience split three times into three groups, and we spent 90 minutes on each question. My first session was exploring two questions “How could British health entrepreneurs help the developing world and how can we in Britain benefit from the furious pace of innovation in emerging economies?”

Entrepreneurs are, I discovered, like doctors in that they can be hard to keep on the subject. Their minds love to roam. The message that emerged most strongly for me was that it’s very hard to innovate in the NHS—bureaucracy, attitudes, and treacle get in the way. Ironically, Ara Darzi was in another part of the building pleading for innovation.

In the next group we discussed getting people out of “bad gyms” into “good gyms,” and a social entrepreneur called Ivo told us of his scheme to get people who want to exercise to run to the homes of isolated elderly people, deliver something (a newspaper or piece of fruit), and check on them. Everybody loved the simplicity of his idea, and he already has funding and help to develop a website. His scheme might soon be sweeping the country.

For my question I had three doctors, open access publishers, software innovators, and marketing experts—all I could hope for, and all for free. They gave me 18 ideas for getting doctors to publish more case reports, and we discussed how to make three happen—linking publishing to continuing professional education and appraisal, using video more than words, and exploring patients rather than doctors being the main drivers.

If you are young and entrepreneurial or even like me “an aged man…a tattered coat upon a stick” then try visiting a HealthCamp to get your creative juices flowing. You can learn more about HealthCamps at, watch the videos that were made of the problems and reports on discussions at, and read the Twitter stream of comments during the day at

Competing interest: HealthCamps have been introduced to Britain by Mohammad Al-Ubaydli, a friend of mine and the chief executive of a start up called Patients Know Best. I’m the chairman of Patients Know Best and could get rich if it becomes the next Google or lose the small amount I’m investing in the company. I’m also the editor of Cases Journal, which explains my question.