On February 7th 2016 the government announced its latest drive to improve the use of technology in the NHS in England – the aim, to become a ‘paperless’ healthcare service that is more convenient for patients that would help doctors to provide faster diagnoses. A timely announcement as 2016 is declared the year that mHealth will really begin to make waves but also a firm nod from our public health service that technology is the key dependency for their future.
The term mHealth and the practice of medicine, health and wellness supported by mobile devices has been around for a number of years yet the innovations and activities have historically been fragmented and on a more modest scale. That’s not to disregard the vast number of use cases for mobile within the industry and the sequential benefits they can bring. From projects to fundamentally transform internal processes through to mobile technology that sit at a more consumer level to monitor wellness or orchestrate self care, our focus for this piece lies in the latter.
To date smartphones, connected medical accessories and apps have been under utilised by the healthcare industry however PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have proclaimed 2016 will be the year that care begins to shift into the palms of consumers’ hands in their latest report; Top Health Industry Issues of 2016. Primary care and chronic disease management are leading the way in this context; think connected otoscopes, activity trackers, scales, health apps, algothrym based symptom checkers and on-demand e-visits. Yet advancements in mobile technology and how it is applied in the health industry means the way we are communicating with our doctors is changing more generally too. Now we can use multi-media, visual cues and genomic/anatomical maps to have symptoms diagnosed and treatments prescribed along with having remote check ups and treatments.
This year we’ll see millions of consumers have their first video consultations, be prescribed their first health apps and use their smartphones as diagnostic tools for the first time. There are also programs such as Omada Health’s online behavior change program called Prevent being widely adopted in the US. This involves home delivery of a connected wireless scale and activity tracker. These stream data to Prevent’s app and a personal health coach who then make recommendations based on personal objectives. And on a more local scale we’re seeing innovations on our doorstep gain real traction; take Push Doctor for example– a digital service to enable doctors appointments online or via a dedicated app.
Self-care via mobile technologies has the potential to be a real game changer and the provision of such services is at large due to the advances which make wireless links global. In August 2015 Ofcom reported that at least one 4G mobile broadband service is now available to 89.5% of UK premises with this expected to rise to 98% in 2017. During 2014 we also saw 4G subscriptions leap from 2.7 million subscriptions to 23.6 million – it’s a growing market which is fuelling our ever-connected state and at an even better level.
Improved connectivity means we can offer a more seamless experience to consumers when it comes to self-care, fulfilling the desire for ‘anywhere, anytime monitoring, diagnosis and treatment’. We live in a convenience rules society and this is just one way we’re meeting a consumer’s demands in the digital era. The benefits of this approach however aren’t just the reserve of the everyday consumer. Large healthcare institutions can benefit commercially, fulfilling their ambitions to drive down costs, largely from the implications of a paperless approach and a consolidated and effective digital infrastructure. The Department of Health estimates a ‘paperless NHS’ will save the system £4.4bn by 2018. In addition to the commercial gains, by offering remote, digital services access and engagement will naturally improve. In 2015 The Telegraph asked the question; ‘can you live without a GP?’ – whilst digital services should not be considered a complete substitute, the plethora of digital resources and services means a physical GP appointment is no longer necessary and healthcare is more readily accessible to all.
To really make mainstream self-care a reality, much of it is contingent on the quality of the tech we develop and deploy. Without robust, secure and engaging solutions that adopt an innovative approach, we risk low adoption rates and deflated and irritated users. PwC have outlined within their health report that we should be looking to remote regions and emerging markets for innovation based on the premise that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. The example in which they draw upon is India’s DoctorKePaas that sets patients up with smart home monitoring kits which wirelessly connect to the company’s online platform. From there, patients can connect with a range of clinicians, from dermatologists to cardiologists to fertility doctors who can conduct virtual examinations and can prescribe treatment remotely.
The implications of self-care via digital mechanisms means organisations will undoubtedly need help managing utlisation, streamlining fragmented processes and handling the vast amounts of new data electronically generated. Self-care using technology however represents great steps forward in the way in which we are doing things and marks a fundamental cultural shift. Visiting our GP in a bricks and mortar environment has been engrained within our society for so many years therefore moving towards virtual self care will be a slow and gradual process and will of course, not work for everybody. That being said, it is clear we are making significant progress – the ‘paperless’ agenda is firmly cemented on our public health service’s agenda as we embrace and encourage innovation in this space to make ‘self-care’ a reality.