Digital futures for health

As more and more people of all ages become more literate and involved in more complex ways on the internet, the role of digital services and infrastructure has become increasingly integral to the provision of all kinds of services, and essential for others.

Even the most ‘analogue’ services and traditionalist propositions – those that hold face-to-face and human contact above all else – are utilising the internet to streamline processes, make data more transparent and intelligent and empowering front-line workers and users by providing ubiquous access to information.

Red prototyped ‘activmobs’ services to establish and support communities organised online to live more active lifestyles and have access to health experts and facilities.

Which is why health provides such an interesting proposition for the burgeoning service design community. There have been some excellent emerging health services, which due to their complex, lifelong and sometimes critical nature require a whole spectrum of touchpoints besides a digital infrastructure.

Services are shifting focus from purely cost-saving, reducing staffing overheads by digitising processes and steering their customers online, to a win-win situation which truly drives better experiences for their users. It provides a number of shortcuts, removes un-neccessary physical journeys and tedious staff roles and duties. But the shift has gone beyond digital services representing a complimentary role to online blueprints and wireframes being the core structure of the provision, informing organisational structure and strategy and when, where and how more traditional experiences and touchpoints should happen.

hellohealth have established a healthcare platform in Brooklyn, “putting context around each point of data, allowing (users) to look at data more meaningfully”.

Aviv Katz and I met with FitForSport last week and were greatly encouraged by the scale of their operation – providing in and out of school physical education from activities, nutritional advice and even summer camps – amounting to 1.2 million children involved with the scheme at some level in 2008. Their goals nicely align with Engine’s current project with Southwark Council to reduce obesity in the borough, with the first initiatives targeting children and encouraging family support and participation. Despite their excellent on-the-ground work in schools and communities, their online offer falls well short of its potential to ensure the good work done on activity days and in schools isn’t being undone by an unhealthy lifestyle at home.

Microsoft healthvault lubricates the flow of infomration and empowers users and healthcare providers with transparent data. They just need to work on their video. And hopefully it isn’t as painful to use as most Microsoft software.

Our discussion also focused on the multi-billion pound question – what difference investment in preventative and early-stages care can make in both monetary terms and to the quality of life of people compared to dealing with chronic disease and attempting to cure it later on? Only a long-time study can shed light on what is logically sound and provide those striving to make it happen with the ammunition of hard facts to convince the bean-counters, particularly as the NHS faces 0% extra investment until 2011, when the ringfencing of its budget is again reviewed and will likely drop due to the recession.

Large-scale long-term, quali-qualitative studies on the effects of preventative health are thin on the ground, to say the least, but digitally-oriented healthcare can provide rich data and empowering, transparent services for people at low cost – surely the time is right?

The Service Design Network journal, Touchpoint, will focus its next issue on healthcare. I eagerly anticipate its contents!