Digital health and the NHS come together

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A recent report into the health habits of the nation found that the times are a-changing, with digital healthcare becoming the go-to choice for frustrated patients. Unable to even to get an appointment with their GP, some patients are voting with their digits, and choosing apps and websites – rather than anger and waiting rooms. These activities are helping them to diagnose and responsibly manage their own health.

But this is only part of the story – it’s also about preventative digital healthcare – where our bodies are monitored and measured by bio-sensors, biological and imaging technologies, wearables and embeddable devices. All this electronic trickery means that we can keep tabs on our key body functions to ensure we are getting to – and remaining at – optimum health.

So who’s stepping up to support this digital healthcare revolution?

Our 24/7 culture has created a world where we want answers and we want them instantly – the internet and new technology has transformed the way that we manage our health. The Digital Health Report 2015 from PushDoctor.co.uk found that: 

we are more likely to Google our symptoms than talk to our partner, family or friends

online research comes before consulting our GP or local pharmacist

58% of us use technology to manage our health and wellbeing

in 2014 the number of online health searches carried out in the UK increased by 19%.

Simon Jones, Commercial Director of digital health specialist Inhealthcare and formerly the Director of Long-Term Conditions and Patient Choices at NHS Direct says: “The public now live their lives enabled via technology – smartphones, tablets, laptops and so on support them as they shop, holiday, date, or gamble so why shouldn’t they manage their health as well?”  

We’re changing the way that we manage our health, and many innovative businesses, along with new government initiatives, are developing and supporting solutions that will transform the future of healthcare. 

Helping hand

The DigitalHealth.London initiative and the Digital Health Accelerator programme were launched earlier this year by Life Sciences Minister George Freeman.  Both are focused on ensuring that digital healthcare solutions are recognised as a driving force in making healthcare highly efficient, more personalised, and cost effective. 

Susan Macdonald, Founder and Director of Macdonald Lewis Associates Limited (mlal.co.uk), says that this support for digital healthcare could represent exciting opportunities beyond London and the UK: “DigitalHealth.London provides a platform to demonstrate to the rest of the world what digital, best in class, patient-centric healthcare could look like – embracing digital health technologies to deliver a research focused health service fit for purpose in a consumer-centric, digital age far removed from anything that could have been imagined in 1948 when the NHS was launched.” 

Susan believes that these initiatives will create a ripple effect felt way beyond the UK. “I believe it can represent a superb opportunity not just for London, but also for the broader UK, to attract future economic investment and collaboration to benefit health and wellbeing of others beyond our shores.”  

Tailored support for digital innovation

The Accelerator recently called for small-to-medium digital health businesses looking for help in developing and pioneering ground-breaking health technologies specifically for the NHS to apply for support. The year-long programme aims to find and support the highest potential digital health start-ups and businesses and will be run over three consecutive years, providing tailored support to a total of around 80 businesses.

Furthermore, it will facilitate engagement with clinicians and healthcare experts, support businesses in refining their products to meet needs, help them to navigate the intricacies of the NHS, showcase their products in health facilities and develop business models to support them in bringing their products to the market.

According to Simon Jones, initiatives such as this, which bring digital health businesses and the NHS together, will help to address barriers to the uptake of digital health innovations within the NHS. 

A criticism of digital health has been that it is technology led and not therefore bespoke for patient use.  Now we see many digital health companies forming close allegiances with NHS organisations to ensure clinical leadership drives great content and through engagement ensures the patients remain at the heart of service redesign. Having a programme that concentrates on bringing the best examples of innovation and matching them up with healthcare provision has to be supported,” he says.  

Simon believes that this focus on smaller businesses instead of large global companies could transform digital health. “Accelerator programmes have in the past tended to look at higher end solutions and not at simple to use, simple technology, low cost solutions.  The immediate gains in improving the nation’s health will be through very cheap, very scaleable solutions, not expensive devices.”

Barriers and solutions

Experts are concerned however that although these digital health schemes are designed to support product development and engagement, red tape could get in the way. 

“Assuming we already have the correct knowledge and skillsets driving this initiative, the biggest hurdle I envisage to the success of DigitalHealth.London will be bureaucracy impeding the speed and desire of healthcare providers to adapt their current practices and policies to fully engage with, embrace and implement the use of digital health technologies,” says Susan Macdonald.

Hilary Stephenson, managing director of digital user experience agency, Sigma, agrees: “In the UK we still have a problem with commissioning. Procurement can be slow and done on a large scale, meaning smaller commercial organisations or start-ups struggle to get their ideas off the ground as they aren’t on the right list, or the opportunity is too vast. 

“We need to avoid a situation where patients and users are clamouring for solutions and keen to quantify their health, but the supply of available resources is too slow or the quality, or usability, is poor.”

Exciting times ahead

Speaking at an Accelerator information day earlier this year, Dr Tony Newman-Sanders, Consultant Radiologist and Chief Clinical Information Officer, Croydon Health Services NHS Trust, said: “This is a really exciting time to be involved in healthcare in this country, but we will not be able to continue to improve quality of health and care whilst maintaining financial sustainability without a great deal of innovation and we need to work together.”

The formation of close alliances between digital health businesses and NHS organisations – facilitated by programmes such as the Accelerator – could be the catalyst for real change and the kind of advances that innovators, the NHS, and patients either want or need.

“Digital healthcare solutions that utilise technology to protect the limited resource of doctors and leverage their capability, accuracy and reach will have the potential to make the NHS hugely more efficient and cost effective in the long run,” concludes Ali Parsa, founder and CEO of personal health company babylon (babylonhealth.com). “The good news is that these are the kind of developments we are seeing in the industry at the moment.”