Although healthcare has recognised the potential of technology, it has faced major obstacles in becoming a truly digital industry.

Connecting customers to their desired services through the click of a button and the rapid dissemination of digital interventions in several key industries has led technology gurus to coin the term “the uberisation of our daily lives”. Although healthcare has recognised the potential of technology, it has faced major obstacles in becoming a truly digital industry.

During a period of promise where the National Information Board (NIB) initiated the “Personalised Health and Care 2020” framework which promises to “use information and technology to transform outcomes for patients and citizens”1, the NHS still faced difficulties in its endorsement of healthcare related apps. In March 2013, NHS Choices started hosting a “Health Apps Library” which allowed users to identify NHS reviewed apps designed at improving patients’ health. However, with some apps operating without encryption, there were growing fears that patient data were not adequately protected. As a result, NHS choices closed its Health Apps Library in October 2015, less than three years after its inauguration, highlighting a major obstacle of integrating technology into healthcare2. Furthermore, the lack of robust clinical trials and reliable data on the use of digital health interventions poses further scepticism over the use of technology in healthcare.

It is not all bad news, however. NIB vowed to use experiences from the app library, and digital health has returned as a key priority. In 2016, NIB worked closely with Public Health England and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) to devise a standardised process for evaluating healthcare apps. Furthermore, in its first annual report, NIB boasted impressive achievements by a number of practices and hospitals across the country3. For example, Northampton General Hospital implemented an electronic observation system to monitor patients’ vital signs as opposed to the time consuming, manual process where nurses had to make notes of numerous procedures on charts placed at the end of patients’ beds. Replacing this manual system reduced errors by 300% over a 2-year period from 2013 to 2015. In addition, a GP practice in north Leeds with over 13,000 patients launched an online system that allowed patients to access their records, book appointments and order repeat prescriptions.

Emerging apps are building up on some of these developments. For example, Echo, a healthcare technology start-up allows its users to make medication requests through its app. In addition to digital prescription, Echo offers a comprehensive service that allows patients to order their prescription in just two clicks. The app allows prescriptions to be dispatched by Royal Mail from pharmacies, which eradicates waiting time and concerns over pharmacists’ capacity4. The in-app tracker also sets reminders and instructions on how to use the medication.

The increasing diffusion of online prescriptions is an example of how digital interventions could potentially improve a key area of healthcare – medical adherence. A study published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) found that adherence among patients with chronic diseases in developed countries averages at only 50%5. Barriers such as taking time off-work to attend a GP appointment makes medical adherence difficult for patients with repeat prescriptions. In a survey issued by research firm Aurora, it was found that patients aged between 25-34 years of age are worst at adhering to their medicine, with 37% overall, admitting to forgetting to request a repeat prescription on time. The research goes further to state that 27% of those surveyed, needed to book an emergency appointment whilst 7% had to attend A&E as a result of not receiving their prescription6.

With the NHS facing growing challenges and strict efficiency demands in 20177, tech solutions such as Echo offer some hope and with NIB making promising strides in digital health, it seems that healthcare may be ready to fully capture advances in technology to simplify the lives of patients.