What does the future hold for digital healthcare?


Supermarkets and high street pharmacies across the UK have started to introduce drop-in facilities and self-help kiosks. Photograph: Sergio Dionisio/AP

Everyone in the healthcare industry knows what challenges we face – an ageing population, more lifestyle-related ill health and growing constraints on budgets. In a nutshell, there is an increasing demand for services but fewer resources to deliver them.

Still a relatively new market, digital healthcare uses technology to support sustainable healthcare systems in the face of this growing challenge. It achieves this by increasing efficiency in established processes (whether administrative or medical), promoting positive health-related behaviour change and increasing the effectiveness of therapeutic processes and procedures.

Most of us have heard about apps that reward people for performing beneficial behaviours, web portals that enable patients to book appointments or order prescriptions and devices that track and monitor patients remotely. However, while technological innovation is abundant, the digital healthcare market isn’t growing as rapidly as we anticipated, in spite of increasing need.

Linked to this, the NHS‘s size and complexity means that its uptake of digital healthcare products and services can only be slow but steady. We must look elsewhere for leadership if this market is to grow enough to create benefit through economies of scale.

I believe that leadership in the digital healthcare marketplace will come from unlikely sources such as the third sector, the high street and even the general public. As demand for health and care services grows, citizens will be increasingly willing to adopt new, unconventional approaches to meet their needs. The third sector will adopt a greater role in the provision of health, care and wellbeing within the communities it serves. At the same time, the high street will provide a new and different kind of healthcare based on consumer demand. Those who can afford it will hit the shops, while those who cannot will turn to community networks such as housing associations and patient groups.

This is already starting to happen. For instance, a social landlord in the north of Scotland is developing a smartphone app that will enable elderly and vulnerable people to access basic support services, helping them to maintain an independent home life. Similarly, supermarkets and high street pharmacies across the UK have started to introduce drop-in facilities and self-help kiosks.

There are barriers to overcome. For the NHS and the wider industry, procurement processes and cultural differences can create perceived obstacles. Likewise, in a market where life science meets consumer electronics the regulatory landscape is complex and constantly changing.

Nevertheless, current and impending challenges combined with technological progress are bringing new participants to the health and care market place, each offering insight, ideas, innovation and resources as well as different relationships with the general public.

By combining popular consumer products such as smartphones, tablets and televisions with healthcare, we will soon find value in receiving a different type of service based on convenience, effectiveness, efficiency and personal need. If this becomes reality sooner rather than later when public demand for services peaks, we will be in a far better position to address the increasing social and medical challenges of modern life such as obesity, diabetes, mental health and loneliness.

This predicted market trajectory for digital healthcare offers significant relief to existing health and care services that are quickly becoming unsustainable.

By blurring the lines between state and private provision, new providers enabled by digital healthcare can support a future where everyone can access effective healthcare in a way that suits their lifestyle and their pocket.

The challenges ahead are too great for future populations to keep depending on a single source of health and care services. We must welcome new providers and their potential to bring healthcare into the digital age.

Dr Steven Dodsworth is chief executive at D Health – a specialist consultancy which provides support services to the global digital healthcare community.