Digital and Mobile Tech Are Part of Our Healthcare Future — But Not All of It

It Takes Both Digital and Analog Solutions to Increase Community Health and Wellbeing

February 6, 2017

Healthcare Strategist, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: At NBBJ, we’re at the forefront of using research and technology to drive breakthroughs in healthcare, from streamlining the design process with virtual reality, to incorporating digital analytics in healthcare planning. At the same time, we know technology isn’t the only tool for solving healthcare challenges — after all, studies show the most effective care occurs when caregivers themselves are satisfied.

This week, we’re highlighting some of the human factors that must be paired with data and technology in order to bring healthcare into the future. 


I had the opportunity recently to conduct a workshop in Montréal at the New Cities Summit, the annual gathering of the New Cities Foundation, an organization devoted to shaping a world where cities drive economic, social and environmental progress. The theme was The Age of Urban Tech, taking us beyond smart cities to a new wave of innovation. My workshop, the only one devoted to health, asked the question: Can digital and mobile tech increase the health and wellbeing of communities?

The answer is yes, technology can do a lot but the participants of my workshop were very clear about one thing: When technology is used it should serve the person by enhancing human interactions and help to alleviate the isolation that many folks feel when they are ill or disabled.

The participants were international and multi-generational. I broke them up into three groups to consider four distinct demographic scenarios and how mobile and digital technology, ranging from smart-phone apps to wearable health monitors to robotic companions to super smart houses and anything else they could imagine, could enable better health.


Several Common Themes Emerged

As the groups began reporting out several themes emerged that were common to all of the scenarios:

  • Human interaction, whenever and however possible, needs to be fostered. This is especially true for people who are ill and disabled. Because of the screen-to-screen nature of technology, it can sometimes lead to more isolation rather than less, by creating a false sense of connection. So while technology in all its forms is necessary to any solution, we have an obligation to ensure it serves human connections.
  • It will take everyone — governmental authorities, non-governmental organizations, local providers, advocacy groups and empowered people — to raise the level of health and well-being in communities. This includes an assurance that a solid infrastructure exists to enable technology to work flawlessly.
  • We must avoid the easy use of broad labels for groups, which only result in misaligned incentives and inadequate solutions. “Millennial,” for example, is an easy label to apply, but not all members of this generation are the same. They have different experiences, different cultures and different economic circumstances. The same can be said for every generation, so our solutions must be tailored to very particular circumstances.


How Can Technology Help?

Most participants were not concerned with all the technology that monitors human physiology and the environment. They knew from their own experiences that the technology exists, is steadily improving and will be part of our healthcare lives — whether it’s a simple application or something more robust, like telemedicine or a wearable monitor that would be prescribed in the same way a drug is prescribed.

However, participants’ interest in technology was focused around the theme of community-building. For example:

  • Increasing community participation that promotes healthy living. They envisioned an application that could gather people for informal play activities, working in green spaces and community gardens, and other outdoor activities. They were trying to create more spontaneity in both play and community gathering and take the “screen” out of their lives.
  • Deploying applications that allow people to report on environmental conditions. This was striking in the case of the dengue and Zika viruses where folks are now monitoring environmental conditions like standing water and other mosquito breeding grounds. This data is uploaded and maps are quickly generated so public health officials can act. And it empowers the individual to improve their own health by acting on their local environmental conditions.
  • Creating applications to quickly report symptoms that can distinguish between “normal” illness like a cold and more severe illnesses like flu and other high-risk communicable diseases. This will help prevent overcrowding at hospitals and track the course of the outbreak so preventive actions can be taken.


What Non-Technology Solutions Were Suggested?

But not everything will be solved with technology alone. Here are some other recommendations participants made:

  • Create food buses that go into food desert neighborhoods on a regular schedule with healthy choices at a reasonable price.
  • Reduce housing lot sizes in exchange for more community green spaces. In older neighborhoods continue the trend of creating pocket parks by recovering abandoned properties.
  • Create social mentorship networks to raise the level of personal and civic engagement. The decline of many civic and religious organizations has created more isolation, and the participants felt these networks could help in re-establishing the needed level of civic participation it will take to increase the health and wellbeing in our communities.
  • Incentivize population health by creating a public fund for initiatives that will decrease the incidence and prevalence of disease. This would be accomplished by a portion of private and public health insurance premiums going to the local community or non-governmental authority charged with implementation. In return, premiums and out-of-pocket costs would be reduced, benefiting private, government and patient payers.


Is there a gap between healthcare technology entrepreneurs and the people who use the tools they develop? Judging by the workshop, there is. Much of the technology that is being developed is purpose-driven and will succeed for its narrowly defined use case. The killer app, the one that will really drive increases in population health, is not available yet. Whatever it is, it will have to remove the artificial barrier that current technology creates and enable more human interaction.

Image courtesy of Geoff Peters/Wikipedia.

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