Digital technologies

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Part of Time to Think Differently

New digital technologies

Internet-enabled mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablets and PDAs, are expected to become the main internet providers for users in the next decade. They will be capable of accessing, communicating and sharing information anywhere.

At the same time there will be more flexible and immersive ways of displaying information, including 3-D holographic imaging and augmented reality (which overlays data and images onto a physical environment).

Wireless-enabled sensors embedded in everyday objects will be able to send information and enable us to interface with computing through touch.

The evolution of 'ubiquitous computing'

These new devices, sensors, and screens, combined with access to ever-expanding quantities of data support the shift to what is known as 'ubiquitous computing' (1,2). The benefits of universal access will also be enhanced by cloud-based storage (which allows users to store data, applications and processing activities digitally to be accessed from any device) (1).

There is likely to be rapid growth in intelligent applications, machine learning and machine reasoning (2). Intelligent technologies could enable increased automation and the delegation of routine human decision-making. The use of avatars could enable people to gain easier access to advice and support in all spheres of their life including health care. In the longer term, robots that can undertake tasks autonomously are anticipated.

In health and social care there will be new opportunities to capture, relay and interpret vital signs and other information, both in the home and in other care settings.

More sophisticated decision support systems will support professionals (2). Yet, while these open up great opportunities to deliver health care more efficiently and effectively, there is also a risk of data overload.

Social media

One of the most significant technological trends is the rise in the use of social media.

In October 2012, Facebook announced that it now had one billion monthly users. In 2004 Facebook only had 1 million users (3). In less than ten years people have adopted a whole new means of communicating with each other. In 2011, 91 per cent of 16-24 year olds in the UK used social networking sites (4).

Social media has given new power to consumers, who can now actively share and evaluate products; create and link to communities, and adapt content to personal preferences (5).

Social media is already supporting new online communities of patient groups, and the impact of on health and social care can be expected to grow, particularly with increased transparency about services and outcomes.


Crowdsourcing is the process of getting expertise, work or funding, from a crowd of people by using the internet.

One of the most famous examples is Wikipedia. Instead of creating an encyclopedia on their own – with the costs of hiring writers and editors – the company gave people the ability to add, and edit, the information themselves.

How can crowdsourcing help health care?

Crowdsourcing is already proving to be of great value in health care. Patients and doctors are using social media networks, including Twitter and Facebook to post medical problems and seek help finding diagnoses. Researchers are also able to gather data from patients to provide new insights into particular diseases. Governments and research bodies are gathering ideas and solutions via open calls on the web.

The data-driven social network, Patients Like Me, has conducted the largest number of crowdsourced health studies so far, and has over a million users with rare diseases. CureTogether is another example and produces infographics based on patient feedback.

CureTogether infographic on effectiveness and popularity of depression treatments

CureTogether infographic on effectiveness and popularity of depression treatments

Source: CureTogether (2010). Article. 6 Surprisingly Effective Treatments for Depression


The boom in mobile connectivity has been accompanied by huge technological innovation and sales of targeted software applications ('apps').

By March 2012, 25 billion apps had been downloaded from Apple’s App Store (6).

While popular, some question the longevity of apps, which were in part originally developed to cope with deficiencies in interfacing with the web via mobile devices. As this interface continues to improve we may see a decrease in the development and use of apps (7).

Apps and health care

Apps are starting to play a role in empowering service users, supporting professionals and enabling specialist expertise to transcend geographical boundaries. Their uses include:

  • providing information about services
  • providing information about conditions and treatments
  • supporting self diagnosis, management and monitoring
  • offering professional support and education
  • supporting clinical networks and sharing clinical opinion and advice
  • enabling the remote monitoring of patients
  • sharing diagnostic images and information.

Next page: Applications in home and health care settings


  1. Leading Edge Forum (2008). Report. Digital Disruptions: Technology innovations powering 21st century business
  2. Cave J, Van Oranje-Nassau C, Schindler H R, Shehabi A,  Brutscher P, Robinson N (2009). Trends in Connectivity Technologies and their Socioeconomic Impacts. RAND Europe.
  3. Facebook Statistics – timeline
  4. Office for National Statistics (2011). Statistical bulletin. Internet Access – Households and Individuals. 2011
  5. Wikipedia, Internet of Things
  6. Apple Press (2012). Apple's App Store Downloads Top 25 Billion
  7. Anderson J, Rainie L (2012). The Future of Apps and Web