Digital healthcare is the way forward

Patients can be taught self-care, says Grant Cumming

The focus of modern healthcare is around lifestyle issues such as obesity and diabetes. Picture: PA

A new building named the Alexander Graham Bell Centre, located on the campus of Moray College UHI in Elgin, will be officially opened in June to further the pioneering work already being done in the area on digital healthcare or e-health. Detailed attention has been paid to the internal architecture because the centre’s purpose is to bring together – and create a flow of ideas between – people working in digital healthcare in the public and private sectors as well as medics, social workers and academics.

Drawing on the “social physics” ideas of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, professor Alex Pentland, among others, the centre will be a hub for developing new and innovative ways of providing healthcare using information and communication technology (ICT).

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Social physics outlines how human behaviour is driven by the exchange of ideas and learning from each other. It also identifies how large amounts of very specific data available on the internet through different types of computer technology can be used to help this process.

For example, one in four people in Moray consults the internet prior to visiting their GP, giving doctors an insight into the value of highlighting credible sources of information to patients which might allow them to look after themselves.

We can no longer afford to deliver healthcare under the existing model. Our system was built to deal with infection and while we will always have infection, the focus of modern healthcare is around lifestyle issues such as obesity and diabetes.

The traditional model is reactive when we need to be concentrating much more on preventative and personalised medicine – we need new ideas on how we engage with a person and their wellbeing throughout their life and that is what the centre is there to generate.

In part, the challenge is subtly to alter the behaviour of patients. As well as Alex Pentland’s, the work of behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein on nudging people to take action and that of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, whose global bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow contrasts fast, instinctive and emotional thinking with slower, more logical thinking in human decision-making, has been influential.

We can teach people to look after themselves. We need an element of nudging – persuading people to take action, for example by highlighting the dangers of smoking. We also need budging – making people take action, for example the ban on smoking in public spaces. We can use information and new technology, perhaps even gaming, to create, for instance, a fun way to exercise to get a message over to some groups.

The internet is now a social web where we can order goods and interact with people, where information within documents can be linked and disparate databases mined for more information.

We must look at how we can connect and collaborate and use that technology to improve the delivery of healthcare, and where better to develop that format than here in Moray?

Moray has already won global recognition for its excellence in the field of digital health, hosting a World Health Organisation conference on the subject in 2012. And two of the four projects in the UK to have received substantial funding under the DALLAS (Delivering Assisted Living Lifestyle at Scale) scheme are in Moray.

They are:

n Year Zero, an online application which enables people to manage their health information and includes an online family tree, a digital version of the red book that is given to all parents to record their child’s health and Rally Round, a social networking and planning tool to connect family, friends, carers and health and care professionals.

n Living It Up, which uses connected TVs to give people access to health and community information within their own homes. Moray is the test bed area for the project.

It is hoped that the Alexander Graham Bell Centre will further enhance the area’s reputation for digital healthcare.

The centre has conference facilities, eight classrooms, custom-built corridor learning pods for students, a community hub and café.

It also has a mock hospital ward, a resuscitation training room, research facilities and space for new enterprises.

The whole place will be a melting pot for ideas, a safe space in which we hope we will be able to redesign how we deliver healthcare.

• The £6.5 million Alexander Graham Bell Centre has been funded by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Moray College UHI, NHS Grampian and the European Regional Development Fund.

Professor Grant Cumming, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist, Dr Gray’s Hospital, Elgin is one of the medical professionals behind the creation of the centre.