Digital health: a patient-first approach is key to progress

by | 24 July 2017 | Digital health, Data

Most areas of life in Europe have embraced digital technology, but healthcare has been slow on the uptake. To integrate new technologies successfully, we must let patients’ needs lead the way.

The group of people who may benefit from digital health is incredibly diverse: from digital natives and social media gurus to people who may be unfamiliar with digital technology or have security concerns.

A couple of years ago, I met the Technical Lead of an EU-funded eHealth pilot. The pilot provided a remote monitoring system to about 3,000 people with a non-communicable disease. The patients could input their health data and access educational materials, as well as consulting directly with healthcare professionals. When I met the Technical Lead, the pilot had just ended. Although comprehensive evaluation data were not yet available, its chances of success seemed limited and below expectations. Since then, the project’s website has been shut down and it has sunk into obscurity. There is no lack of pilots and research projects in digital health in the EU. A 2016 European Commission report counts 158 EU-funded projects in the area of health, wellbeing and ageing. Together with private-sector initiatives and start-ups, this paints a picture of a blossoming digital health landscape. But it also demonstrates something problematic – a ‘pilot-rich but proof-poor’ environment. Reflecting on the possible flaws of the project mentioned above, the Technical Lead noted a lack of understanding on the part of researchers and payers. They didn’t understand what healthcare service users expected and needed from digital health interventions, what their concerns were, and how much they were willing to invest to access such innovations. Gaining this understanding is difficult. The group of people who may benefit from digital health is incredibly diverse: from digital natives and social media gurus to people who may be unfamiliar with digital technology or have security concerns. It also encompasses a variety of healthcare needs, including people with chronic conditions, those with acute disease, and many others. Members of the same family may have completely different opinions regarding how much health data they feel comfortable sharing, and with whom.

Why the slow uptake of digital health?

Information and communication technology has permeated almost every aspect of day-to-day life. In 2016, over 80% of EU citizens aged 16–74 used the internet. It seems bizarre, then, that digital technologies are still not integral to our health systems.

There are signs that the public is ready for digital health: in the 2016 Philips Future Health Index survey, more than 77% of respondents attributed great potential to connected health. Many people already share health information online when seeking advice, and there is evidence that most people are willing to share their electronic health record with their healthcare professional. (Furthermore, it is questionable whether current methods of storing patient data are safer than storing them digitally.) This public readiness should be acknowledged, and acted on.

Many people already share health information online when seeking advice.

Bringing digital health to the front line

It is essential to align eHealth strategies and services with patients’ needs and perspectives – this is the only way to truly foster patient empowerment and adoption of eHealth. This means identifying patients’ needs and involving them in the design process of any eHealth intervention.

Some interesting examples of patient-led innovations include:

It is necessary to ask how we can cater to a wide range of needs – especially those of people who could potentially benefit most from eHealth interventions, but are more likely to have problems accessing them, e.g. elderly people and marginalised or vulnerable communities. In the face of such diversity of users, solutions must recognise and develop local diversities.

Patient-led innovation is an excellent first step, but to effect real change in our healthcare systems, we need shared standards and structures in place. This will allow end users to easily access and adopt digital health.

Progress can only be achieved through a system-wide approach; otherwise, health services may not keep up with new innovations. As David Maguire, Economic and Data Analyst at the King’s Fund, has pointed out: ‘If interoperability is not embraced [by health services] in the same way it is by the public, then one day you might have to bring your mobile device along to your appointment just to let your doctor borrow your integrated care record.’

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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views of The Health Policy Partnership.