By Gloria Lombardi

Imagine if, as a patient, you could access your GP and all your health records online giving you more control over your own care; or if you had to do fewer phone calls or trips to the hospital but just communicate with professional teams digitally at any time; or if you hadn’t had to repeat yourself when your information is shared between healthcare professionals. Until recently, this was not what you would normally expect.

But over the past years things have started to change. Quite remarkably. Healthcare services around the globe are now investing in ground-breaking technology to benefit both patients and clinicians. In the process, it is accelerating the spread of health apps, wearable devices, connected care systems, and the use of advanced analytics to maximise the use of routinely collected data. The 2015 Digital Health World Forum this week delved into all these topics and provided the optimum platform to learn more about the latest innovations in healthcare.

The personalisation of health

statsListening to the Director General for Innovation, Growth and Technology at The Department of Health Will Cavendish, the transformation of care in the UK is well under way. The Country’s digital health market is set to grow by nearly £1bn in the next three years – potentially reaching £3.5bn by 2020. “Digital health systems make up the vast majority of the market at present. But other areas, such as health apps and health analytics, are set to grow rapidly,” claimed Cavendish.

At the heart of this transformation is the personalisation of health – from the delivery of remote monitoring and tele-consultations, to e-medicine supply chains, social care digitisation, mobile and agile working, and the removal of paper based processes across all care settings. Plans also include the deployment of the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies in real clinical settings such as in the ward, in the GP surgery or in the waiting room. Ultimately, it’s about improving productivity and empowering people to make the right choices.

Mobile health

“Everyone now has the power to innovate in a digital world thanks to the marriage between the two great innovation platforms of the 21st century: internet and mobile.”

Dr. Mike Short is VP at Telefonica. He entertained the audience with a lively talk on mobile devices, the way they are transforming people’s behaviours and the interactions they have with organisations. “Mobile technology has shifted people’s expectation to a state of extensive levels of personalisation, consistent and relevant information wherever they are.”

telephoneTo make his point, Short took the audience through a chart on the mobile phone services over the past 30 years: “Do you remember your first mobile phone? April 2013 marked the 40th anniversary of the first mobile phone call in a public setting. In March 2014 the web celebrated its 25th birthday. It’s proof of what a well established platform it is and it’s become a central part of people’s lives. Expected that by end of this year there’ll be more mobile phones than people!”

Even more stimulating was the discussion around the opportunity for mobile health, that, as he Short said, “it is all about people power.” There are apps that help you to track diets, to exercise, to sleep better, or to manage healthier lifestyles through gamification activities such as giving you something to aim for, or a way to share and celebrate their achievements amongst a community. At the end of 2014, there were 33.000 Health and Fitness and 25.000 Medical apps in the Apple store, and 44.000 Health & Fitness apps and 23.000 Medical apps in the Google Play store. And, in the UK, the NHS has also launched its own app store – the NHS Choices Healthy App Store.

Going further, Short cited a study by PWC – ‘Socio-economic impact of mHealth: An assessment report for the European Union’ indicates that by 2017 6.9 million people may be able to reduce the risk of developing chronic diseases thanks to lifestyle improvement made through mHealth.

Looking forward, he was confident that people will become more familiar with wearable technology – from smart bands and watches, to clothing, jewellery, glasses and headsets.

Perhaps, the most inspiring takeaway here, is that digital is enabling individuals’ awareness of health issues, empowering people to take more responsibility for themselves. As Short put it, “this is vitally important – we must do as much as we can to help ourselves.”

Digital health at work

KPMobile technology is impacting on clinical workflow too, transforming the way medical professionals perform tasks and communicate daily.

For example, we heard from Tigerspike’s MD Cameron Franks, that Kaiser Permanente uses a mobile app to provide video consultations as well as a clinical reference library that enables doctors to search for drugs in real-time.

It was also interesting to know that Stanford University and the University of Oxford have partnered to create MyHeart Counts – this app uses surveys to help researchers more accurately evaluate how people’s lifestyle and activity relate to their risk of cardiovascular disease. “By identifying those correlations, researcher can begin to better understand how to keep hearts healthier.”

Mobile is truly ubiquitous. For the majority of people having a mobile phone is now just a part of our lives. Building on this opportunity The George Institute for Global Health is supporting aboriginal communities to better access to healthcare through the One Deadly Step app.

The mobile moment – overcoming the obstacles

Indeed, as TotalMobile’s Clinical Consultant Simon Wallace said, we are living the ‘mobile moment’. The phrase was originally coined by Forrest’s VP and Principal Analyst Ted Schadler, describing it as ‘a point in time and space when a person uses a mobile device to meet an immediate need, whatever that may be and wherever that person may be.’

Again, Wallace emphasised that mobile is creating new ways of working, toward flexibility and efficiency. “Community health and social care workers are not shackled to the office to update notes on systems and trawl databases. They have access to the data they need on the move, leaving more time to spend on patient care.”

But, while it’s seems clear that this is a game-changing opportunity to influence healthcare, there are a few challenges along the way. Security concerns, technology integration and resource constraints were often cited as obstacles.

Director of OurMobile Health Julie Brentland, helped to clarify some more barriers. First is transparency. Letting users know that an app is collecting and sharing their data, is extremely important. That is also true of accurate and correct content. To make her point, Brentland cited the 2013 study by The University of Pittsburgh on melanomas. Four apps were used to evaluate photographs and provide users with the likelihood of malignancy. Three of the four apps incorrectly classified 30% or more of melanomas as un-concerning. The researchers concluded: “Reliance on these applications, which are not subject to regulatory oversights, in lie of medical consultation can delay the diagnosis of melanoma and harm users.”

And, sometimes the more popular apps are the lower the quality. This conclusion was supported by a survey of smoking cessation apps.

Brentland, argued therefore, that’s time to “invest in building confidence and trust.”

Looking at the future

This is an evolutionary, yet transformative journey. Beyond the challenges, that of course it’s crucial to continue to explore and fully understand, the 2015 Digital Health World Forum was a confirmation that the mobile and digital health world is rising fast, as are the drivers and advantages of investing on it. When all is said and done, the greatest opportunity here is to really enhance critical care provision around the globe – a win-win for patients and clinicians.