Prevention revolution: How digital tools can help us get ahead of health problems

digital health technology

The UK healthcare system is confronting unprecedented challenges due to an ageing population and a surge in health issues. Concurrently, there's a growing interest in health discussions both mental and physical, yet, people struggle with effective strategies for change.

The solution could lie in an innovative digital approach already at our fingertips. Digital technology could be a game-changer that offers the elusive promise of tackling the root cause, not just the conditions themselves.

The fact we are facing a serious challenge is unarguable. An ageing population and a lower birth rate are transforming the population pyramid with a declining population to support them. The proportion of people aged over 65 has increased from 16.4% to 18.6% in the last decade alone.

This is compounded by a significant health crisis on our hands. More than 15 million people, 30% of the UK population, are living with one or more long-term conditions.

How digital technology can be of service

While our screen addiction is a cause for alarm with social media arguably exacerbating mental health problems for many, it could also offer hope as a saviour in the battle for better health and wellbeing.

After all, everyone has a phone and everyone is on that phone for long periods of time (users in the UK spend an average of 2hrs 55mins per day on their desktops, and 2hrs 52mins per day on their mobile devices). So, how can we nudge people to focus on things that will make the greatest difference to their health and wellbeing?

The digital divide

The advent of wearables and smart technology has given birth to a host of innovative players who have revolutionised health tracking.

Devices ranging from Whoop, and Apple Health to Strava provide fitness tracking. Meanwhile, diet plans and advice, such as My Fitness Pal, Noom, and WW enable people to derive insights and monitor in real-time.

However, it takes a lot of time, expense, focus, and motivation. Many of the apps are also aimed at a wealthier and more motivated subset set, while health inequalities stand at starker levels than ever.

So, how can digital technology help and take the burden from us, with a focus more on prevention than cure? How can this be pointed towards what will make the greatest difference to the greatest number of people?

1. Specific individual health profiles

A key area is psychometrics, where an individual's specific profile will have a significant influence over how and whether they reach their health goals. For example, your attitude to exercise, love or hate it, as well as any established habits need to be considered and addressed.

Apps like Noom have made great strides in using psychology to help nudge people towards good choices and away from the bad. They use profiling and user behaviour to address some of the psychological aspects of motivation, which is crucial to create positive outcomes. Understanding individual attitudes and motivations and incorporating them into technology-driven solutions can enhance user commitment.

Consider for a moment that each individual creates and has access to their personal health and wellbeing psychometric profile, which they can share more broadly with third parties, such as a personal trainer, nutritionist, or even GP. Not only can they make better decisions based on their own understanding, but this also opens up a whole world of opportunity for third parties to better positively impact them.

2. Highly tailored health regimes

If health profiles are established, technology can then recommend suitable personal training programmes, diet plans, and mental wellbeing approaches. This goes beyond conventional gym workouts, healthy recipes, and one size fits all breathing exercises.

While fitness classes are built to attract people in generally, this method could instead recommend what might work best for you as an individual. This could be based on your motivations, goals, weight, mobility, and what is likely to have the best impact for your health, both mental and physical.

For some, being shouted at by an army instructor and abstaining from the food they love can work. For others, that would be a recipe for disaster and getting a dog and walking it for 30 minutes in the morning and evening may well suffice.

As more people take part, AI can provide tailored recommendations based on the success of others with a similar profile who have seen good results. These techniques have become extremely effective in other categories, such as advertising, much of which is arguably designed to encourage people to make bad choices. By introducing this in healthcare, the techniques can be used for good.

3. Connected personalised health insights

Digital technology enables the creation of symmetric profiles of individuals' health structures. Pioneered by the likes of Tim Spector, there is an increasing realisation that one size fits all advice when it comes to diet and nutrition is actually wasteful and incompatible with optimal health outcomes.

The technology being devised and data being captured through private health services such as Zoe, Supply Life, and Thriva - to name just a few - could be utilised more broadly if accessed and connected to private and public healthcare providers. Advice and recommendations could then be tailored based on these deeper profiles, providing more personalised health and wellbeing insights. The more data that is ingested, the more accurate the advice that can be given, based on others with similar health profiles.

I track my health and fitness using my Apple watch and this data syncs with Strava, as does my Wahoo cycling computer when I cycle outside and my Zwift indoor cycle training programmes. I have tested Whoop for a three-month period and I have also taken a food intolerance test with Supply Life.

Now, imagine if my private health or the NHS had access to that data and were able to analyse and synthesise it in order to better understand me and offer advice? Even predict potential issues. Data fabrics will hopefully make this viable in the future.

Of course, not everyone will have the motivation to log everything in this way, but, even if we saw a fraction of the available data being shared with health providers, this could lead to hugely improved health outcomes. Doctors armed with real-time information could be better placed to offer guidance and swifter diagnoses for millions of patients.

4. Accessible user owned data structures

Permission would need to be granted by each individual, however, the system currently doesn't seem to be in place to store, analyse, and utilise the data more broadly. However if these issues could be worked through, a universal system could be put in place.

The emphasis should be on the user owning their data, and the services accessing this with permission, rather than the businesses owning the data. This does mean business models will need to shift and the value ends up in the experience and customer retention, rather than the data and advertising. It is also important that people feel incentivised to share data through the value that businesses could deliver.

With the right vision, we could see a pathway towards a digitally interconnected approach to health and wellbeing. The four pillars of Individual Health Profiles, Tailored Health Regimes, Personalised Health Insights, and an Accessible User Owned Data Structure could all lead to dramatic improvement in our health and wellbeing, reducing at least some of the costs associated with the demographic changes we face.

I believe the technology exists to make this happen and, with some clever thinking and collaboration between third parties, we could achieve a unified and interconnected approach that can revolutionise how individuals perceive and manage their health.

Stephen Firth
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Stephen Firth