THE BLOG

Are Wearables Helping the Right People?

26/02/2016 10:30 | Updated 26 February 2016

One in ten people in the UK has now used wearable devices, smartphones or apps to track their health and wellbeing. The figure is around one in five for millennials.

Given my firm support for any technology or innovation that supports patient-centric healthcare this is - to me - a very pleasing statistic. However, it also requires broader context, which is in part provided by a recent report from UK innovation foundation Nesta.

Supporting the view that wearables are 'changing the face of health', the report found that last year, the vast majority (95 per cent) of GPs saw an increase in patients attending consultations armed with health data they had collected via such devices. Not only that, but nine out of ten GPs who said they had seen an increase found this kind of information useful.

Excellent, I thought, this is just the shot in the arm that healthcare needs, particularly for patients with long-term conditions. Now they can finally become equal partners in managing their condition with their clinicians. I read on with eager anticipation of further positive findings.

Only 16 per cent of people with an on-going health issue choose to share such data with their doctor. Oh dear.

It seems not only do those who would benefit most from this opportunity not share information, but also 54 per cent said they could see no benefit in doing so - with almost 1 in 6 believing such data would only be ignored by their GP.

To recap, fitness and health tracking is on the up; GPs welcome patients using technology to monitor valuable data that can help improve their care; but those patients who really need ongoing support either aren't using wearables or think their doctor will dismiss patient-generated information without a second thought.

There is a worrying misalignment of patient and GP attitudes here and it's a state of affairs we desperately need to fix. If we don't, there is a distinct danger that GPs will start to dismiss the concept - because the patients coming through their doors clutching their tech-generated health data will be mostly the 'worried well' and gadget geeks.

We simply can't let this happen. Health and wellbeing tracking really could change thousands of lives. Blood pressure, movement, heart rate, temperature, blood sugar levels, sleep patterns, weight, breathing patterns - tracking peaks, patterns and events associated with these indicators can offer valuable insights into how a patient's chronic condition is developing and being managed, and also indicate where changes in treatment or lifestyle may be needed.

Patients with heart conditions, diabetes, or asthma, for example, would all benefit from being able to track their own health data and share this with their GP to improve care - particularly from a preventative perspective.

I say 'would benefit', but plenty already are.

Just last year, for example, Kings College Hospital in London ran a pilot where cancer patients undergoing Chemotherapy tracked valuable data on Apple Watches - then shared it with the clinicians treating them. In Liverpool, wearables are helping asthma patients manage their condition and work with GPs to adjust treatment plans to make sure they get the best possible care. New applications are emerging every day, such as this innovative solution to help support patients with Parkinson's.

But if Nesta's report is anything to go by, these shining examples are at risk of not becoming part of mainstream care because patients don't know the potential benefits, or don't know that GPs do actually value user-tracked data.

What I find interesting though, is while those of us with health concerns are reluctant to share useful health data with GPs, we are increasingly happy to share it online with friends, family and the wider global community.

I recently read, for example, a blog from the excellent Young Minds charity about the worrying trend of young people with mental health problems increasingly turning to social media for advice rather than healthcare professionals.

Don't get me wrong, there are many wonderful online and social media support groups but, as Lauren Blenkinsop points out, if individuals are judging their own condition on the basis of someone else's experience, reactions and medications, then perspectives can be seriously skewed. This can have a knock-on effect (possibly negative) on individuals seeking the correct treatment.

Back in 2014 I saw a US poll that asked 1000 people about their use of online channels for health information - 30 per cent had shared at least one personal health experience on a social media platform in the last three months. That was two years ago and in the States, but it's not hard to imagine how this figure has rocketed in that time - both over the pond and here in the UK. According to Fleishman Hillard "20% of Millennials use Snapchat for their own health", the assumption being that its transient nature appeals for privacy reasons. Really?

Surely a GP/patient partnership supported by personalised (and therefore always relevant) data has to be a logical next step given our propensity to share information.

More needs to be done to highlight the potential at hand, particularly for patients with chronic healthcare conditions or issues. And arguably there has never been a better time to do this. Why? It's because from the end of March this year, all GP surgeries must offer patients the ability to view their own medical records online.

This important milestone means that as well as being able to track and share their own data with their doctor, patients can also easily access important information about their treatment and consultation history. The opportunity for patients to become true partners in their healthcare has never been greater.

Wearables might not be helping the right people in the right way, right now. But if we keep highlighting the best practice examples, keep innovating and focus on clearer communications between healthcare providers and patients, then I think we have some exciting and life-changing times ahead.

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