What is Digital Health?

Digital Health is the term coined for the convergence of digital technology with the health care sector, healthy living and society. Healthcare like many other sectors is embracing the realisation that we are living in a digital world which is seeing rapid growth in the capability of telecommunications and information technologies available in our day to day to lives such as smart phones, laptops and tablets

Digital Health in the UK?

The rise in e – healthcare in the UK is allowing healthcare professionals and patients to use digital technology to access, support and track health related information. Digital technology is seen to empower patients and carers by giving them control over their own health. One example of this is the introduction of mobile health apps from the National Health Service (NHS) which help patients stop smoking or lose weight which can be installed either on a mobile phone or tablet. Further to this there has been a growing trend for wireless fitness tracker products such as Fitbit and Jawbone. These products collect data on the user when worn such as steps walked and sleeping patterns which the user can access via an app on their phone or online via a website to assess their health.

In the UK the NHS has dedicated itself to embracing digital technology via its Digital Inclusion Programme. This strategy unveiled in 2014 is in line with the new Personal Health and Care Framework 2020 introduced by the Department of Health which recognises the need for the healthcare system in the UK to be digitally upgraded to meet increasing consumer demands. Under this framework the National Information Board has been established to supervise the strategic priorities for data and technology in the UK and to implement the Government's Digital Strategy, the Department of Health's Digital Strategy and Power of Information Strategy.

The UK government has confirmed that its digital strategy is a framework for action to take advantage of the digital opportunity. The NHS is implementing digital technology to aid communication between its departments, stream line its internal operations and facilitate online payments. Further to this it has created online access points for patients via the introduction of its "Choose and Book" system along with the ability for patients to order repeat prescriptions online thus transforming the patient experience. Via digital technology multi channel access is available to the NHS for patients and healthcare professionals alike.

However digital technology is also being used in other ways such as to develop revolutionary healthcare software such as Cambridge's Cognition software which tests patient's cognitive functions. Further to this other digital tools have been developed such as Proteus Digital Health which has partnered with the UK government and the NHS to provide state of the art monitoring services for patients with chronic illnesses. Proteus Digital Health is an online monitoring tool which monitors a patients adherence to long term medication. This software operates in conjunction with sensors stored inside medication and a patch worn on the patient's stomach. Together these can detect whether or not the medication is being taken by the patient.

Looking to the future the NHS is planning to introduce remote monitoring for some patients in order to allow doctor's to take on more appointments. This form of monitoring would make use of high tech clothing, sensors and gadgets which monitor the patient in real time, providing updates as to their health to healthcare professionals and emergency services alike. This service would aid in assisted living programmes that are increasingly necessary to support elderly and vulnerable people. At present the GiraffPlus system has been piloted and is being introduced into the UK healthcare system. It involves the use of a "Giraff" robot to help treat people with dementia. The project, funded by the European Union provides the patient with sensors and wearable devices to interact with the robot who monitors the patient via the use of a microphone and camera. This data is then fed back in real time to healthcare professionals. The project trialled in the remote areas of the NHS Western Isles is a breakthrough in Digital Health, however some have expressed concerns that these technologies are being led by technology companies and not healthcare professionals. Linked to this healthcare professionals have expressed growing concerns about patient privacy and how this will be protected in the digital age.

However digital health is on the increase in the UK and is evolving in such a way that it can provide an efficient and timely solution to the current healthcare related problems plaguing the UK of people not going to the doctor in time, not being diagnosed correctly and not effectively treating their health problems.

A report commissioned by the Office of Life Sciences in March 2015 has confirmed that digital health has great potential to improve access to healthcare. From the report's evaluation it is clear that the UKis good at generating ideas but less successful at commercialising them. View a copy of the report here.