Can mHealth applications and wearable devices really save our creaking National Health Service?

Far from championing mobile and mHealth as the saviour of the NHS, some of the papers recently painted a very bleak picture. It was enough to make you jumpy about going to the doctors, and a bit fearful of the day you next have to make a trip to A&E.

A few weeks ago, Britain’s most senior doctor, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, was all over the press saying the NHS wasn’t fit for purpose, that free healthcare wasn’t sustainable, and that health in Britain was on the verge of collapse.

But it really depends how you spin it. The Guardian posted several stories on the same day in January, off the back of its in-depth interview with Sir Bruce. one story said (we’re paraphrasing): “Sir Bruce says the NHS is more or less completely rogered”, while another said “Sir Bruce is really interested in using mobile technology in the NHS”.

And I’ve gotta tell you – the second story was a lot more interesting (and a lot less panic-inducing) than the first.

If you work in the NHS (or maybe if you’ve used the NHS regularly recently) you don’t need me to tell you that the NHS is under a great deal of strain. Austerity has hit it, and the ageing population has increased demand (as this troubling BBC Panorama film described earlier this year). Long-term illnesses are more treatable and better diagnosed than ever, which is great for patients, but doesn’t half create a lot of work for doctors and nurses. Medical knowledge is power – but also paperwork.

But before we panic ourselves into Googling “DIY HEALTHCARE”, let’s go back to Bruce. Sure, he says, the NHS as it stands is struggling (we’re paraphrasing again). But a bit of innovation and a bit of aligning the service towards modern problems, and it might not be all bad.

And that’s where mobile comes in. Devices that track our bodies and allow self quantification are becoming commonplace for those in the market for a high-end smartphone. For example, Apple’s Health app monitors a variety of our bodily functions, while Samsung’s Galaxy phones have had the S Health app pre-installed for a couple of iterations now. And there are third-party apps a plenty that can monitor your exercise habits, and help you with your diet.

In the healthcare realm, though, the data that seemingly simple monitoring devices harvest is gold dust. For example, a wearable connected heartrate monitor for a patient getting over a heart-attack gets them out of hospital and home to get on with their life, in the knowledge that an alarm system is making sure their recovery is going to plan.

Put in those terms, predictive and monitoring wearable devices are exactly the kind innovations that will modernise the NHS – both in terms of the approach and in terms of addressing modern health concerns. Apply similar ideas to obesity, type 2 diabetes, mental health problems – all problems that are on the rise and giving the NHS new challenges – and a mobile-connected NHS looks like the institution’s best bet.

As Sir Bruce said to The Guardian in the somewhat cheerier article we mentioned: “Technology enables you to predict things, to act early and to prevent unnecessary admissions, thereby taking a load off the NHS but, more importantly, actually keeping somebody safe and feeling good.”

So, while the NHS as it stands probably is unaffordable in the long term, we hopefully won’t be relying too heavily on ourselves for major medical procedures. If political will can be found to explore what mobile can do for our health service (and this work is underway), then the future might not be as bleak as the papers might have us believe.

We’ll explore some real-world mHealth applications in a future blog post. In the meantime, let us know what you think of the potential of mHealth. You can follow us on LinkedIn, chat with us on Twitter @yodelmobile, and join our #mobilemarketingUK LinkedIn group.