Digital health is a key approach to developing health services that are more person-centred.
Just as the internet has moved from static web pages to content that people can generate and share (using tools such as blogs, social networks and video-sharing sites), so digital health is facilitating people to be more active and confident in managing their own health and their relationship with health services. Using technology that is now commonplace, people can access general health information, view their personal health record, track their own health, give and receive support from peers, and access services in ways that are more convenient to them.
Not only can digital health enable the way care is provided to be more individualised, more immediate and more convenient, but it supports a cultural shift in the balance of power away from health professionals and services and towards patients. This is because people have greater access to information and are enabled to manage their own health and care.
As digital tools are ever more common, both patients and staff increasingly expect to be able to utilise the same technologies that they use in their personal life in their interactions with health services. Within healthcare, patients themselves and technology providers, not just the NHS, are driving the development and adoption of digital health tools. The best outcomes are achieved when all stakeholders work in partnership to develop and implement the technology.
What is digital health?
Digital health is an umbrella term referring to a range of different technologies that can be used to support people’s health and care without them needing to visit a hospital, clinic or any other health or care setting. Some of these technologies – such as self-monitoring and booking appointments online – are designed to enhance people’s NHS care, but others – such as self-care apps and online communities – can be used by people without any reference to their health professional, team or service.
What are the components of digital health?
NHS England uses the term 'technology enabled care services' (TECS), which it defines as including telehealth, telecare, telemedicine, telecoaching and self-care apps. These terms signify the different ways in which technology is being used to support care. However, this is an evolving area, and these different terms are often used by different people to mean different things.
Why implement digital health?
People’s expectations of services and health professionals are changing, and they increasingly expect better access and more choice and control over their treatment and care. For health professionals and services, digital health offers the potential for services to be delivered in more cost effective ways, whilst potentially improving outcomes and reducing services utilisation. National policy and guidance combines these two perspectives through its growing emphasis on engaging people in decisions about their own health and care and on enabling people to manage their own health.
How do we implement digital health?
Implementing digital health requires a change in thinking: the technology must be designed around the needs and aspirations of people who use services; it must be incorporated into how services work, rather than being seen as ‘bolt on’; and it must be flexible so people are able to ‘mix and match’ the different technologies with more traditional approaches, to create a combination that works for each individual. This means action is needed at a number of levels, from planning and commissioning care pathways, through to supporting individual health professionals to implement it in their practice and ensuring patients have the access, skills and confidence to use it.