Digital futures for health

The dramatic rise in digital services has replaced service roles, automated and streamlined processes, made data more transparent and intelligent, and empowered end users by providing ubiquitous access to information. Even the most ‘analogue’ services and traditional propositions – those that focus on quality of experience, empathic face-to-face conversations and human contact are being fundamentally affected.

Health will always be an interesting proposition for the 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 beside a digital infrastructure.

RED, a team I was part of within the UK Design Council, prototyped ‘activmobs‘ services to establish and support communities organised online to live more active lifestyles and have access to health experts and facilities.

Services are shifting focus from digitising purely to save costs, reducing staffing overheads by digitising processes and steering their customers online, to new opportunities and possibilities which drive better experiences for users. It provides a number of shortcuts, removes un-necessary physical journeys and tedious staff roles and duties. But the shift has gone beyond digital services representing a complimentary role to UX becoming 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.”

I met with FitForSport last week and were greatly encouraged by the scale of their operation. They provide in- and out-of-school physical education including activities, nutritional advice and even summer camps. 1.2 million children were involved with the organisation at some level in 2008. Their goals nicely align with Engine’s current project with Southwark Council to reduce obesity in the borough by focusing on children and encouraging family support and involvement. Despite their excellent on-the-ground work in schools and communities, Fit For Sport’s 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. The case for change is there, but how to spare cash for UX when the work is so critical, and funds may diverted from the great ‘front line’ work?

Microsoft healthvault lubricates the flow of information and empowers users and healthcare providers with transparent data. They just need to work on their video.

Our discussion also focused on a multi-billion pound question of justifying preventative health investment: 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 the human and financial costs of treatment or cure later? How can digitisation free up some funds in an NHS facing a “ringfencing” (read freezing at 0% extra investment) of its budget until 2011, and alarm bells are sounding on the recession causing NHS funds to be cut soon after?

Large-scale long-term, quali-qualitative studies on the effects of preventative health on various conditions take a lot of time and labour. But the logic and case for change are strong. Digitally-oriented healthcare, and new services of all kinds enabled by it can provide rich data and empowering, transparent services for people at low cost – surely the time is right.

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