The ‘blight’ of health inequalities needs technology solutions to narrow the gap
Parts of the North of England are leading the way on healthtech, driving real progress and delivering improved outcomes, but the North is also well-represented at the wrong end of the leaderboard on health inequalities.
Technology can be seen as a double-edged sword – enabling faster progress in tackling conditions and developing new solutions, but with a real risk that the digital divide widens existing inequalities.
Prof Mark Mon-Williams holds a Chair in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Leeds and is one of the team leading Born in Bradford, an internationally-recognised research programme which aims to find out what keeps families healthy and happy.
“Inequalities are absolutely blighting our country, one of the wealthiest countries in the world and yet we have these huge disparities,” he said.
“When we look at those families in Manningham [in Bradford], large numbers don’t have access to the digital technologies. It’s actually more complicated than that because there are other barriers, so if you’ve got English as an additional language that might be difficult for you to use.
“We’ve reached our understandings of our problems – and understand it from everybody’s perspective, from business, from health problems, and from the social sector care.
“Because we properly understand the problems, then I think we can start finding solutions. And I firmly believe that technology will be part of those solutions.”
Lalit Suryawanshi is the co-founder of Itecho Health, a Leeds-based company set up in 2018 to develop digital health applications in chronic disease.
“In terms of inequality, when we are trying to come up with these fancy digital ideas, we also have to look at the people who cannot afford it are not kept behind,” he said.
“We are doing a lot of work with patient groups and charities, and we try to get patients from different socio-economic backgrounds and different racial backgrounds, and then try to understand what they want and try to implement that into our technology.
“In terms of what kind of device access they have, I might have the latest phone and somebody might have 10 versions behind this. So how can we make sure that they get a similar experience as others.”
Paul Baverstock, founder and chief executive of innovative health app developer Caterpillar Health, believes there needs to be faster acceptance of the role new technologies can play in addressing health issues.
“There needs to be a further and proper integration in the short-to-medium term of technology into the patient journey, from being at home all the way through primary care, secondary care and into social care,” he said.
“That can only happen if it’s integrated into the clinical practice of physicians and nurses, and if it’s integrated into the prescribing model.”
Covid-19 had a huge impact on health services and health inqualities but it also meant there was a shift to digital technologies, with millions of people using the NHS app and other tools.
Suryawanshi said: “The pandemic helped a lot of digital companies because five years ago, when we were talking about remote monitoring or self care, it was a strict ‘no’,” he said.
“Now we see a gradual acceptance of these kind of technologies. In fact, a lot of us now see our GPs on Facetime or similar, which was unheard of five years ago. It’s a positive change, in my opinion, and I think technology will help us.”
Disruptive innovation can play an important role in prevention, and help ease some of the pressure on GPs and hospitals.
Baverstock explained that he started Caterpillar Health because he believed the health system has “an avoidable cost burden that comes from avoidable chronic conditions, and that people need to take better care of themselves in front of the front door of the hospital, rather than coming to the hospital later on in their care pathway”.
The app his company has developed rewards people little and often for behaviour change in three areas – physical activity, mental and emotional health, and diet and nutrition.
“It’s based around the notion of disruptive economics, so you reward people now early for a small behaviour change that will have beneficial and incremental impact in the future,” said Baverstock.
“Studies show that you have a beneficial effect further down the social scale and we’re very much focused on trying to help people who need help rather than the kind of Strava-using, 10,000-steps-a-day people.
“We’re personalised and adoptive and non-judgmental. So if you do 500 steps a day, we’re trying to get you to do 510 steps today, and you are rewarded equally with someone who does 10,000 steps.”
Technology is having an impact throughout the healthcare system and Prof Mon-Williams, who created a centre for immersive technologies at the University of Leeds, detailed a couple of examples of how medical students’ training has benefitted.
“I believe that immersive technology and virtuality systems, extended reality systems are going to be a game changer,” he said.
“In our School of Dentistry, we used to train students on the public’s teeth – which is not a good idea – or we used to get really expensive plastic teeth. Now we train all of our dentistry students using virtual reality simulators.
“We already do virtuality training within the School of Medicine. Every hospital is configured differently and every crash trolley in every hospital is configured differently. For students that are turning up in one of these hospitals and hitting an emergency, there’s actually quite a steep learning curve.
“We can actually give them a virtual tour of the hospital and the virtual tour of the crash trolley before they set foot in that hospital.
“So we’re already using technologies to enhance our medical education and there are lots of good examples about how similar technologies can start improving health and they also start allowing us to tackle some of the inequalities.”
Disruptors 2022 brought together business leaders and innovators from across the North to inspire organisations to embrace disruption, to showcase some of the most exciting companies in the North, and to provide practical information to help people maximise opportunities that disruptive technology can bring.
The one-day conference was curated by TheBusinessDesk.com and supported by BHP, Brown Shipley, Clarion and Nexus.