Digital health is not just a current buzzword, it’s an entire movement within the health service and industry. It seeks to support and encourage the use of mobile technology such as digital health apps for the benefit of patients and to improve the convenience or efficiency of health care providers.
Both end aims are laudable. Where patients are more engaged with maintaining good health or managing illness by themselves, HCPs are in turn able to give more focused care to those less able or needing additional support. In addition, digital health can assist organisation, accessing and updating patient records, and streamlining prescriptions and medication.
The available digital health technology as it stands today, however, doesn’t quite deliver all that it could. The transformation of healthcare hasn’t happened as swiftly or in the ways that were expected.
Are we really creating useful digital health apps?
Much of the problem lies in the sheer number of new apps that appear each month. It’s estimated that there are currently somewhere around a quarter of a million such apps for smartphones. New ones become available every week, partly driven by the advent of wearable technology and the Internet of Things (IoT), as well as the popularity of gadgets and gizmos on mobile phones. Anyone could be forgiven for seeing the current rush of new apps as something akin to the Gold Rush: to be seen and heard in the marketplace, every branch of the health industry must be seen to have an app.
We believe it’s time to pause, reflect and take stock: to ask the question, “with so many apps already available, yet so little change in either patient’s behaviour or health service efficiency, are we really creating useful digital health tools or are we merely following the crowd into an already oversubscribed arena?”
The answer lies in the approach. The way to find a solution to any given problem is to first ask the right questions. Only those will lead to deep understanding and a solution. Often before developing digital health apps, the first question asked is about the technology and how it can be used.
A far better first question is about health, and which challenges currently need solutions. So instead of asking how technology can meet patients’ needs, we should ask which patient needs could benefit from technology.
Putting technology considerations ahead of health needs - as in designing an app without considering which specific problem it will solve - is like putting the cart before the horse. Yes, you end up with both components necessary for movement, but you won’t actually travel very far.
Moving beyond the technology
As digital health apps mature and evolve, there is scope and opportunity to move beyond technology that resides purely inside a smartphone or wearable gadget. We could, and probably should, look at how we can connect the environment with technology and thereby create practical health solutions in a person’s everyday life.
We already have smart meters that help us keep tabs on energy usage, timers to dim lights when we’re on holiday, and voice activated TV remote controls. These are all examples of technology affecting environment, creating solutions that make life just a bit easier. Digital health tools could do similar work.
There is already research and development into how smart lighting, for instance, could help older patients with sight impairment, improving sleep patterns and reducing the risk of falls. We have self-cleaning window panes, but how about windows that would adjust light levels in a room according to prevailing outside conditions? Or developing sensors that detect sleep patterns instead of relying on guessing the number of hours slept than manually inserting these into a smartphone app. Public buildings too, from offices to schools to hospitals, are notorious for contributing to ill-health, and research is underway to develop better lighting systems that combat some of the problems standard lights create.
Current and emerging technology is a powerful tool that could be harnessed to integrate seamlessly into everyday life and our environment at home and at work. But in order to be truly useful and effective, the health need that’s looking for a solution needs to come first. Otherwise we end up with shiny new digital health apps looking for a need to solve.