What is digital health?

Digital health, or ‘Technology enabled care services’ (TECS), 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.  

Digital health can be thought of as a continuum ranging through

  • technologies that exclusively support the care people receive through the NHS;
  • technologies that support people’s NHS care and their own approach to managing their health;
  • technologies people use to support their health and wellbeing completely independently of the NHS.   

Some technologies – such as monitoring at home (often called tele-health) and consultations using technologies such as skype (often called tele-consultations) – are used by the NHS.  These offer different ways of providing the service, which can potentially be more convenient to the patient and more cost effective for the service.  Which technologies are used, and how, needs to be agreed in consultation between the person and their health professional, and tailored to their needs and preferences.  And, as with all changes in how services are provided, people using the service and staff need to be comfortable with the changes and supported to make them, and adapt them as needed. 

Other technologies are used by the NHS to enable people to undertake some of the administrative tasks associated with their healthcare, such as booking appointments, and to provide access to information, such as on-line records.  These technologies offer people more knowledge, choice and control in their health and care.  

There are also technologies – such as self-care apps and online communities – which can be used by people without any reference to their health professional, team or service.  People can ‘mix and match’ both self-care apps and online communities with the care and support they receive through the NHS as they choose, and use them for motivation and support in managing their own health.  Online communities often offer both the potential to track personal health information and give and receive support from peers.

The most effective technologies are developed in partnership between people who bring clinical expertise, people who bring technical expertise and people who are experts by experience and who will ultimately be using them. 

The diagram below shows how people can use different technologies to support their health and care.

Here's a summary of the services delivered through traditional models of healthcare compared with those supported by digital health:

 General health information

  • Traditional service: 
    Available either through discussion with a health professional or in hard copy.  
     
  • Service supported by digital health: 
    A wide range of information from different sources – professional, peer, and other – on the internet.  This can include clinical information, but also information about wider issues that support people’s health and wellbeing.

Personal health 

  • Traditional service: 
    Contained in doctors’ notes, not available to the individual.  Access is therefore only at an appointment. 

    Individuals only have access to information on aspects of their health that they monitored at home.
     
  • Service supported by digital health: 
    On-line access to basic information in your NHS record.  Access is any-time. 

    Access to information from NHS-based home monitoring equipment, and independent monitoring such as apps.

Health monitoring 

  • Traditional service: 
    Determined by the health professional or team in consultation with the patient. 

    Mainly limited to healthcare settings.
     
  • Service supported by digital health: 
    Clinical indicators (such as HbA1c levels) are still determined by the health professional or team in consultation with the patient, but people might also choose to measure issues that matter to them such as sleep patterns and appetite.

    Much monitoring can be carried out in any location and independently of health services.  This includes clinical indicators and broader measures of health and wellbeing.

Consultation with health professional

  • Traditional service:
    GP appointments booked by phone and hospital appointments mainly set by the service and patient notified by letter.

    Face-to-face consultations only with no other access to health professionals

  • Service supported by digital health:

    Appointments with GP can be booked by patients by phone or online.  Hospital appointments may be set by the service and patient notified by letter, but many can also be booked online by the patient themselves.

    Consultations can be in person, by ‘phone or remote e.g. using Skype.  Some clinicians also provide access by email.

Peer support 

  • Traditional service:
    Available face-to-face in the local community.  Restricted to the hours these groups and services operate.
     
  • Service supported by digital health:

    Available face-to-face in the local community.

    Also available through online communities, social media and apps.  This means support is available beyond the local community (globally), and is potentially available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week .

The table below from the TECS Resource for Commissioners shows current examples of how people might access different aspects of digital health commissioned through the NHS at different times in their life.  Not only is it likely that many people might choose to supplement these with different technologies that are independent of the NHS, but as this field develops, new approaches and patterns of use are emerging all the time.   

 

All resources on digital health