Where we’re going we don’t need roads….

On October 21 this year – just a few short days away – Marty McFly and his girlfriend Jennifer Parker will arrive in the Delorian time machine from 1985.

I’m talking, of course, about Back to the Future 2 and according to 1980s movie lore we’re now living in that very same future. If like me you grew up in the 80s we’ve now reached a seminal point – who thought we’d live long enough to see the flying cars and giant holographic sharks dreamt up by director Robert Zemeckis?

The point is that we haven’t and while the 1985 film never set out to try and predict the future it still managed to get plenty right even with a tongue firmly in its cheek.

Nobody can predict the future (unless, like McFly you’ve been there and stolen a 1985 sports almanac) but crystal ball gazers can often get as much right as they do wrong, even when they are trying to be entertaining.

Think about self-tying shoes, the rise in cosmetic surgery, hoverboards (swegways?), CCTV monitoring, flat screen TVs and multi-screen entertainment all of which were featured in the movie and are now a reality.

So it was with that spirit that I went to the Future Healthcare Technology Conference hosted by the NHS North East Leadership Academy last month.

Ray Hammond, an acclaimed futurologist offered a fascinating glimpse into the future predicting that healthcare and medicine will not be immune to disruptive technology. As I’ve already referenced a classic childhood film in this blog I won’t make any nominative determinism comparisons with a certain dinosaur movie, although he did have a passing resemblance to his namesake in Jurassic Park.

Fundamental shift in data ownership

He believes that in the near the future patients will arrive at our doors with their own monitoring solutions for hospitals or GPs to use that will measure things like BP or other vital signs. This isn’t exactly world exclusive stuff as we all shuffled uncomfortably with our Jawbones and Fitbits, although in fairness the current technology isn’t really powerful or secure enough to be used formally by the NHS.

Hammond raised the possibility of patients taking much more ownership of their own data and using this for challenging diagnosis or NHS decisions about care based on their own figures. This would be a really interesting development and a fundamental shift in the relationship between patient and clinical staff, as people become more informed about conditions and collect their own data.

He suspects the trend for wearables will increase, leaking across from fitness to general health monitoring and the NHS. This could have far reaching commercial consequences. For example insurance companies could start asking people to have wearables to reduce prices, much in the same way as drivers are asked to have dashboard devices to monitor their driving style. Drugs companies could also get the opportunity to complete mass, real-time clinical trials out in the field.

Across the wider care environment he predicts much lighter, smaller devices that could be used for monitoring people in the home as they get older. These types of systems may not even be monitored by humans but by specialist software that raises the alarm if someone isn’t following their usual routine or breaches a specified set of conditions.

“The future of care for the vulnerable and the sick is going to be transformed. Aftercare is the key area for change and this will move out of hospital units and become more long range. More analysis of DNA and personal data will help to reduce costs and improve treatment by moving from a one size fits all medical model where you can weed out drugs or treatments that will not be effective on individuals,” he explains.

Gamification and zombies

By sheer coincidence I also got to see the creator of my all-time favourite iphone app, Zombies Run.

The app is one of the best examples of technology supporting health benefits in a really natural, engaging way. Essentially the app is a huge audio adventure that inspires people to be more active.

It’s a bit like being in an episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead while you go on a run. You just plug your headphones in and listen to the latest episode while you jog and the app also tracks your performance. So far around 2 million runners across the world are playing along with more than 2,000 devotees in the UK.

Creator Adrian Hon said that there are now 200 missions and lots of direct health features where users can check things like mileage, calorie burn and maps.

“It’s been successful for one single reason – because it’s fun. I compare it to playing video games because you don’t have to persuade people to do it. The strength of the story makes it addictive and we get thousands of emails about the game and how much it’s influenced people to get fit or move more,” he says.

People are getting excited about gamification because it’s not something they’ve generally seen before in health and fitness. Apps like these that are downloaded to people’s own devices and are genuinely fun (even addictive) could have a big role to play in promoting activity and reducing the obesity crisis faced by the NHS.

He explained how host fitness apps are interesting but not motivating for people unless they’re already very fit, although he believes they now have a growing role in healthcare.

It started out with Nintendo WiFit which sold 20million units which while fun and a step in the right direction probably doesn’t burn enough calories to promote long term behavioural change.

He has recently developed a game funded by the NHS to promote a more active lifestyle and reduce obesity. The Walk tracks your movement and integrates a thriller story narrative where you unlock puzzles ad stories. Users walk a total of 500 miles as part of the story and hopefully start out on the path to better health.

How apps can support positive choices

Dr Madeline Balaam from Open Lab at Newcastle University also told a really interesting story about the feed finder app that helps women find, review and share places for public breastfeeding.

Her team focused on user centred design collated from workshops with women from around Newcastle and Gateshead. It now has around 4,000 users and while practical also helps counter the societal narrative in some quarters that breastfeeding is taboo or not normal.

While essential for mums to find somewhere to feed their babies the crowdsourced data also has the power to improve things. One big department store invested more in its feeding area after seeing negative reviews from mums on the app.

After being approached by others they established APP movement which creates free location based review apps for communities that want it. If you can get 100 people to who want the app it will get made for free. Groups like allergy sufferers or bariatric patients can create an app for their needs and ultimately it’s about creating content that helps people make positive health choices.

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