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Health technology: who cares?

Reflecting on last night’s event Our Health: Who Cares? at the RSA, a better title might have been Health Tech: Who Cares?

The focus of the discussion was how the public recognise that there is a lot of technology out there to support them to live healthier lives – e.g. by collecting activity data on their smartphones or wearable devices – but most didn’t know what it means or how to use it.

Philips has published a report on the findings from their Picture of Health public attitudes survey, and unsurprisingly, 80 per cent of us know we’re not as healthy as we once were. Lifestyle-related diseases are rising both in this country and across the world, and the burden on our health service is becoming acute. It is clear that we all know that we need to reduce demand by leading healthier lives. So what role, (if any), does technology have in changing the nation’s health behaviour?

Chaired by the RSA’s Rowan Conway, the guest speakers were Sean Hughes, Head of Design from Philips; Dr Tim Chadborn, Behavioural Insights Lead Researcher from Public Health England and Tim Kelsey, National Director for Patients and Information, NHS England.

We all know that prevention is better than cure, but we’re a nation that buries its head in the sand. Sean Hughes believes that technology doesn’t have to be expensive but it must be fit for purpose: “Different technology is needed for different target audiences to achieve actions.” Kelsey called for better broadband and 3G, citing ‘The lack of 3G coverage is a genuine threat to patient safety”.

All speakers were passionate about the power of technology and argued that if we can arm people with knowledge to be better informed about their health, then they will be more inclined to change their behaviour as a result. There was talk about co-creation of tech, developing broadband infrastructure to support usage, as well as the need for capability, opportunity and motivation to change behaviour.

However, there were a number of elephants in the room that didn’t get a mention, such as how you get NHS staff to adopt these innovations? How are health technology solutions funded? And which health technologies out of the plethora emerging are worth it? And how reliant we are on social partnerships in succeeding?

Behaviour change is complicated – it is centred on the networks we have in our lives, that is to say it is unlikely for us to adopt a new behaviour with the idea not first having come from our partner, brother, school teacher, religious leader or sports coach (you get the picture).

But ultimately, as Kelsey noted, this isn’t about data or digital, (these are just enablers), it is about helping human beings live more fulfilled, healthy lives.