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Tech savvy consumers missing out due to lack of education around health apps

  • New data analysis reveals the vast market for health apps – including the 760,000 ‘living fast, dying young’ under 40s who smoke, drink frequently, have a smart phone and regularly use the internet.
  • Some health apps are proven to reduce unhealthy behaviours and increase healthy ones. They have huge potential to bring widespread health benefits and save the NHS money.
  • But with over 325,000 apps available more widespread and visible accreditation is needed to help consumers find the most effective ones.

Millions of people in the UK could benefit from health apps on their mobile phone or tablet, but with so many apps available consumers struggle to pick the best ones – according to a new report from the International Longevity Centre – UK (ILC-UK) with support from Audley Villages and EY.

With growing pressures on the NHS, it is increasingly important that everyone takes care to try to manage their own good health. Health apps could help provide a solution for a range of groups, such as the 5.7 million people who ‘just need a push’ and eat healthily and don’t smoke, but drink moderately and exercise rarely.

However, the report finds that the best health apps are hard for consumers to discern against the poor-quality ones, and that some health apps have serious data security flaws. The low barriers to market entry means that best practice effective health apps are often drowned out by poor-quality, ineffective apps.

NHS England has an apps accreditation system (through the NHS Apps Library) which is more rigorous and demands more evidence of effectiveness than other international and non-NHS accreditation schemes. The report finds that on balance it takes the correct approach, and for this the NHS should be applauded.

However, the system does not fully appreciate with how users interact with technology. Too often accreditation is not visible to consumers because it is not integrated with the Apple App Store and Google Play, which are the most popular methods to download apps. When people visit these stores to download apps, it is not easy to see if a health app has been accredited or how effective it might be. Clearer labelling of NHS accredited apps is needed outside of the NHS Apps Library.

The report contains brand new data analysis to identify groups of people in the UK that could benefit from the use of health apps. These include:

  • 13 million ‘switched on older people’ who are over 50, with a smart phone, and frequently use the internet.
  • 7 million people who ‘just need a push’ and who eat healthily and don’t smoke, but drink moderately and exercise rarely.
  • 760,000 ‘living fast, dying young’ who are under 40 and smoke, drink frequently, have a smart phone and regularly use the internet.
  • Nearly 1 million ‘baby boomer boozers’ who are over 60, drink frequently and use a smartphone.
  • 2 million ‘connected, healthy and young’ who eat well, exercise frequently and regularly use the internet.

The report identifies several health apps that have been proven to reduce unhealthy behaviours such as excessive alcohol consumption and increase positive health behaviours such as a healthy diet and physical exercise. Best practice apps include Gray Matters, that has been shown to improve health behaviours that can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s in older adults, and Step Away, that has been shown to effectively reduce heavy alcohol consumption.

New Health Secretary pledges to use technology to improve the NHS
In 2015, Jeremy Hunt stated that his aim was for 25% of smart phone users to be ‘routinely accessing NHS advice, services and medical records through apps by 2017’.
At that time only 2% of the population reported having any ‘digitally enabled transactions within the NHS’.

The new Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock’s first speech pledged his commitment to using technology to improve NHS performance describing himself as ‘the greatest enthusiast of technology on the planet’.

Commenting in the launch of the ILC-UK report, Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Health apps can be revolutionary for patients who need quick and easy access to GP and other healthcare services.

“I want to encourage more innovation in this sector, so that we can build an ecosystem of enterprise that ensures NHS patients and staff can access the best technologies first.”

Sally-Marie Bamford, Director of Research and Strategy at ILC-UK, said: “Healthcare technology is progress. In ten years times we’ll be talking about how technology has transformed health.

“Health apps are of particular promise to support the NHS due to the democratising effect of the smart phone. However, there are challenges in how current apps are monitored. Evidence demonstrates that consumers want guidance to discern which health apps are relevant to them. What we really want is clarity and personalisation, particularly as tech becomes so ubiquitous.

“This ILC report looks at how health consumers can quickly and easily identify which healthcare apps will provide best practise for them and provide guidelines on seeking the relevant ones for their healthcare needs. This is a challenge for everyone concerned from NHS England to web developers. An efficient health application system needs to not stifle innovation yet provide comprehensive and relevant information”

Pamela Spence, EY Global Health Sciences and Wellness Industry Leader, said: “Faced with rising consumer expectations and rapid technological change, healthcare needs to transform. One way to do so is by unlocking the power of data in secure ways. Data is the key that can deliver the benefit of new technologies to those that need them, make healthcare smarter, more precise and more affordable, and demonstrate the value of innovation. Apps powered by data that are convenient, easy, and tailored to individuals’ behaviours can encourage healthier habits. However, consumers need to know which apps are the best for them. An accreditation system that helps people identify the best apps for them would be a powerful tool for consumers and providers.”

Nick Sanderson, CEO of Audley Group, said: “Technology has the potential to revolutionise healthcare in the UK, but that’s being put at risk by the poor quality apps on the market and a general lack of knowledge and accreditation for those that can make a positive difference. The onus now is for companies that market these apps to work with the NHS on clearly displaying accreditation, allowing consumers to make informed choices.

“We know from our own experience how many of the older generation are tech savvy, and would benefit from more information and easy access to apps that can improve health and wellbeing.  I have good reason therefore to hope that the findings of the Commission make a real difference in the future of a market with this much potential.”

Echo is a health app listed on the NHS App Library that offers a simple, free service that delivers your medicine to your door and reminds you when and how to take it. Stephen Bourke, Co-Founder of Echo, who developed the app following his own health condition said: “The ILC report highlights the need for a clear, easy to understand kitemark for healthcare apps.

“NHS Digital has done a fantastic job in establishing the Apps Library, and a huge amount of effort has gone in to ensuring the apps work from a clinical and data protection perspective, but many patients still aren’t aware that it exists, so we need to get the word out there. People are also more used to downloading apps via Apple and Google, so an ‘NHS-approved’ section in existing app stores would be powerful.

The report is called ‘Cutting through the app: How can mobile health apps meet their true potential?’. It is one of six reports being published as part of the International Longevity Centre – UK’s Health and Wellbeing Innovation Commission Inquiry, which is supported by Audley Villages and EY.

Click here to view the full report

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