If you are reading this blog on a smartphone you are not alone. 62% of UK adults have one, and this is increasing significantly each year. About a quarter of Public Health Matters’ readership access this site from a smartphone or tablet. The digital age is allowing us to be more connected and with greater access to data than ever before, and mobile phones have become the most widely-adopted technology in human history.
So, what does this mean for public health? I believe that digital public health and in particular mobile health – the use of mobile communication and devices for achieving health outcomes – is at a tipping point. Mobile has some unique assets – not least availability, affordability, interactivity, accessibility and portability – that open up new possibilities for supporting people to protect and improve their health.
At PHE our own work has shown the positive impact that mobile health can make. Our free SMS smoking cessation programme achieves a success rate 200% better than going it alone and initial data suggests our smokefree app achieves significantly better results. Crucially, these are free, evidence-based products that support the NHS and Local Government to deliver their objectives. It’s not just health improvement where mHealth has potential, either – we also know that SMS reminders significantly increase screening uptake and more evidence of impact seems to emerge every day.
I am convinced that these results, while promising, have not even scratched the surface of what mHealth can and will do. Smartphones can already accurately measure your heart rate, automatically count how many steps you take, scan a barcode and tell you how much sugar is in it, remind you to buy carrots when you are next in Tesco (ask your Android smartphone to do this with Google Voice) and more. This is unlocking unprecedented possibilities for personalised high calibre interventions (such as Sleepio), integrated and anticipatory health records (such as Babylon), quantifying our behaviour (such as TicTrac) and supportive social communities of interest (such as Fitocracy). That’s before wearable devices or the Internet of Things have become mainstream, as well.
So, mHealth has a clear and present potential to support our public health objectives. Within PHE we have an ambition to support a million people per annum with mHealth products by 2016. We are doing this by developing an mHealth product portfolio, following behavioural science frameworks – notably COM-B – promoting these products using existing channels such as Change4Life, building an integrated customer relationship management programme and using social media as an analytical and engagement platform.
This is not about going it alone - we want to work with entrepreneurs and academics to develop and promote great mHealth products: Health X is one example of this. Neither is it about being naïve– we must understand the impact of mHealth on inequalities and promote evidence based approaches (a recent news story that found that the overwhelming majority of running/fitness apps don’t make any use of evidence-based motivational techniques) There is more information about our ‘on-demand’ strategy here.
PHE is also partnering globally. Last week we announced that PHE has signed up to the WHO and ITU global initiative, ‘Be He@lthy, Be Mobile’. We hope that by being part of this initiative we can share what we have learned, support the UK digital health sector and learn from global best practice.
We will use channels like this one to be open and transparent about our work in this area. I would really welcome your comments and questions – in such a fast evolving area what have I missed? What are your favourite examples of digital public health?
Featured image via PHE image library. Used under Crown Copyright.