Realising the power of digital health

Which technologies could change health care over the coming decades? At our International Digital Health and Care Congress we looked into the future and discovered that part of that future is here now: individuals are already able to capture vast amounts of data about their lives with their smartphones, and new wearable digital devices are being released that will increase the range and accuracy of metrics we can capture, even less intrusively.

We can now track many metrics with relative ease, ranging from weight and calorie output during exercise to subjective measures of wellbeing like mood and quality of sleep. We can also monitor factors that people with long-term conditions need to keep under control, like blood glucose.

Grand promises have been made about the benefits of recording this deluge of personal data, but what needs to happen for these promises to be realised?

People can now generate their own health data between medical appointments. This in itself isn’t new, but it can now be done with much less effort. However, to benefit from patient-generated data, the NHS needs technical platforms that can process it and help understand it and its workforce needs the analytical skills to use it. Patients, health professionals and manufacturers need to work together to agree standards for the data generated by the devices tracking health metrics. This shouldn’t be hard –  manufacturers of all types of devices, whether they’re consumer or medical-grade, have an incentive to make the generated data more valuable to the purchaser, for example, by making it simple to link to NHS-generated care records, and by using common standards across manufacturers.

But standards are moot if the data generated doesn’t aid diagnosis or help people to improve their health. At our congress, Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of Babylon, discussed his company’s roll-out of an ambitious smartphone-based health app that will be used to predict illness and offer patients pre-emptive appointments or advice.

We’re yet to see whether the promise of being able to predict illness can be realised. Models that can predict deterioration in patients’ conditions in acute care are bringing some benefits, but can similar principles be applied for less acute illnesses and over longer timescales? And are there any cost-effective interventions that the NHS could make in response to these predictions to prevent deterioration or improve recovery? This might all just be another way to increase pressure on health professionals with little pay-off.

Ultimately, the technologies shown or discussed at the Digital Health and Care Congress are just tools – things that patients and clinicians can use together to improve health. The same goes for the personal data we generate using smartphones and wearable technology. For it to have any point at all, people need to be able to use it to make changes to their lives, whether these are healthy lifestyle choices or self-care practices for a long-term condition. NHS health professionals need skills and knowledge of behaviour change techniques to help people understand the data and make those lasting changes. When training the health professionals of tomorrow, the technology of tomorrow needs to be taken into account, but the age-old problem of getting people to break habits or form new ones will always be with us.

The NHS needs to understand what value rich personal datasets can bring to patient care. And if there are valuable insights to be gleaned, that raises another set of issues about managing and sharing that data. Linking the data to NHS care records and giving professionals the capabilities to analyse and understand all that information would be the next step, but the current status of patient care records – owned and controlled by the NHS – would surely have to be revisited.

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