Away Match at Ewood Park
I’m not known for being a football fan, but this week I had the opportunity to visit Ewood Park, home to Blackburn Rovers, for the Connected Health Ecosystem Event. The event was hosted by the North West Coast Academic Health Science Network, and brought healthcare, tech, and policy experts from all across Britain together for a number of talks, discussions, and the opportunity to network within the industry.
The broad theme of the event was to discuss the use of digital technology and mobile apps in the NHS, especially when it comes to long-term and chronic care. The event made it clear exactly how many solutions are out there; self-management apps for conditions like COPD and Diabetes, health tracking apps for open clinical trials, and Electronic Health Record Systems which gives patients more ownership of their data.
Attendees at the event marvelled at the disruptive technologies on display, and everyone present was in agreement that technology can enhance levels of care and create efficiencies. What is less clear, however, is exactly how to go about deploying these technologies to the front lines.
How to deliver digital health
One of the main topics discussed was the difficulty in doing exactly that, making sure that clinicians and patients are reaping the benefits of the progress and innovation tech companies have delivered. The NHS is a gigantic, complicated, often fragmented organisation, so when digitisation does occur, it is often at a snail’s pace, and restricted to regional clusters.
One of the reasons for this is that, in order for an app-led programme to work, it requires buy-in from all parties involved which, as I’ll explain, is a somewhat herculean task:
- First, the Trust or CCG must commission the build of the app, difficult in a time of restricted budgets, increased demands, and 1-year budgets. It’s hard to justify digital spend when the same money could potentially be used to renovate a ward or hire more nurses.
- Next, the clinicians (GPs and Nurses) must get on board. Many are already overworked and might not be able to find the time to familiarise themselves with new software. Some might even see increased digitisation as the enemy of face-to-face care.
- Finally, once mobile apps are made available to patients, they might not want to participate in new ways of managing their health. Even more, around 23% of Britons don’t have the basic digital skills necessary to use innovative digital solutions, despite the obvious benefits.
These hurdles aren’t impossible to overcome, as our own experience shows, and the pace of adoption is picking up. But these are some of the challenges that digital businesses, NHS Trusts, and patients face.
Who owns my Health Data?
The other big topic discussed at the event was the state of patients’ Electronic Health Records (EHRs). One of the speakers, Dr Lloyd Humphires from Patients Know Best, explained that EHRs should be more patient-centric.
Over the past decade or so, digital technology and social media has shifted the way people view ownership of data. For example, my personal information and photos may be held on Facebook’s servers, my health data may be held by Fitbit and MyFitnessPal, but it’s my information and I can access it at any time. My NHS patient record is a little different.
Your health data is often locked away, inaccessible to the patient, in an EHR which your doctor accesses via. software such as EMIS, or SystmOne. Some proactive patients who are lucky enough to have a digitally-enabled GP practice are able to access their records. Even then, your record ends up as a scrambled chronology of Doctors’ notes and doesn’t really tell you anything about your overall health.
Hopefully, the future will allow patients to take more ownership of their health data and, in turn, more ownership of their health. It’s digital companies like Patients Know Best who are leading the charge.
These kinds of events are always great to discuss matters and learn from other people across the industry. Nearing the end of the day, we were given a number of questions to discuss with the other people on our table. The main question was ‘What apps or digital technologies do we need?’ – a tough one to nail a definitive answer to because it has so many answers.
While there are innumerable problems and solutions in the healthcare system, the best solutions fall broadly into three camps. First up are self-management mobile and web apps; patients with long-term or chronic conditions may only spend a few hours per-annum in face-to-face consultation, so facilitating, streamlining, and recording patient health over time is an area with massive potential.
Next up is clinical trials; as Apple’s announcement of ResearchKit last year pointed out, mobile apps give clinical researchers a huge boost by supercharging participant numbers, reducing the barrier to participation, and leveraging big data. Another exhibitor, uMotif, are currently conducting an open global study and donating that data to Parkinson’s researchers.
Finally, and stepping away from apps, it is sometimes the simple, behind-the-scenes solutions which are the most effective. For example, missed appointments can cost NHS practices over £100 per appointment. Putting in place a system which reminds patients of their appointment via SMS the day before can save the NHS millions of pounds a year.
The NHS and healthcare systems across the globe have a wide range of illnesses themselves, not least austere budgets and digital adoption rates which are decades behind other industries.
Hopefully, events like these give NHS leaders and industry providers the chance to engage and push the use of apps in healthcare.