Are we building technology for those that need it most?

This is a question I ask myself on numerous occasions. It also comes up frequently in conversations with people I speak to in the UK & beyond, who feel also frustrated at the intensity of focus on technology created by the "worried well", for the "worried well". A recent survey in the UK, showed that "71 per cent said that not all members of society are benefiting from computers and the internet, and over half believe that the latest gadgets and devices are built with a mainstream and much younger audience in mind."

I don't have an issue with what technology is being developed, I just wonder if we could also be developing just as much technology to help those who are often need our help & support the most? 

People who have no or very little income. Older people who don't have a smartphone or broadband. New immigrants to a country who don't speak English very well and aren't engaged with their health. Children & adults with learning difficulties who may be in a care home. These are just some of the groups that I see forgotten when I observe many new technologies being launched. 

It's 2014, isn't everyone online?

Many of the people in Digital Health (including myself) fall into the trap of assuming everyone else in society is as connected as they are. I often have to remove myself from the Digital Health bubble and get a 'reality check' by talking to ordinary, hard working, every day people. 

Globally, it's estimated that in 2013, 61% of the people on Earth are NOT using the Internet. Even in the United States, Pew Research in 2014 finds that whilst the 97% of Americans aged 18-29 use the internet, email or access the internet from a mobile device, for Americans aged 65+, this drops to 57%.

Now in virtually every major Digital Health conference or seminar I've attended, both in the UK and abroad, it's a bittersweet experience. Blown away by the ingenuity, creativity and imagination of the people on stage sharing their ideas & products, but saddened too. All this human energy, and it appears we are failing to use it to tackle some really big challenges in society. 

Is it the incentives on offer to entrepreneurs? Is it simply a case of raising awareness? Is it that nobody wants to invest in a tech solution for refugees? Or maybe the problems that are tackled less frequently, are simply not 'sexy' enough to grab attention? I can only imagine that the everyday issues facing both an 85 year old patient with Dementia (and their family & caregivers) in a care home might not be 'sexy' enough. 

Surely, all these issues are being discussed at conferences?

The only conference I've personally been to that did their best to get people thinking, was Health 2.0. I'll never forget my surprise to attend the Health 2.0 Fall conference in San Francisco 2 years ago, and seeing "unmentionables" on the agenda.

Yes, unmentionables. The topics we seldom mention, often viewed as 'taboo'. Taken from their website, "This year we'll visit even more unmentionables including an overview of the Vulnerability Index, poverty, sex and end of life issues."

Furthermore, Health 2.0 took a risk when they agreed to let me host a pre-conference workshop at the Health 2.0 Europe 2013 conference, examining Health 2.0 Tools for the elderly. That experience prompted me to write a post, "How do we make aging as sexy as global warming?"

What Health 2.0 has done is perhaps not perfect but definitely a step in the right direction, and bolder and braver than any other events I've come across.  

I recently came across a Digital Health event that can also be considered to be pushing the boundaries in this arena. The world's first virtual digital health conference, which you can attend from the comfort of your home or office or actually from anywhere! 

That's "digihealth pulse Virtual 2014", hosted by Enspektos, which kicks off tomorrow!

Now, I have invested tens of thousands of pounds of my own funds to attend events around the world in the last two years, and I've spent very little time at home. I can imagine that there are many of you, especially those with personal commitments, who would find a virtual conference to be a breath of fresh air. 

Even more impressive when browsing through their agenda, were two sessions that immediately stood out;

  • Are black, brown & female bodies benefiting from the digital health revolution? Why it's imperative that health tech works for all of us - Alisa Hughley
  • The US HHS & friends talk bringing digital health innovation to the underserved - Silas Buchanan

I find those two sessions refreshing, don't you? I hope the courage of Health 2.0, and Enspektos to include topics that may make audiences feel awkward and uncomfortable, inspires other conference organisers to be even bolder & braver in the future. 

I also know of Aging 2.0, which from their website, is a "global organization on a mission to accelerate innovation to improve the lives of older adults around the world". In fact, just a few days ago in San Francisco, USA they hosted their Global Innovation Summit. I couldn't attend, but it certainly impressed, Dr Leslie Kernisan, one of the most inspiring people I've met.

Dr Kernisan always makes me think about what her older patients need when I email her with details of the latest innovations. 

So what else can we do? 

Be more demanding is one path. Many of those out of the reach of the latest technologies often don't have a voice. Is it our duty to speak up on their behalf? 

We definitely need more programs that are designed to attract those innovators that are interested specifically in solving problems of the underserved. One new group I've recently discovered is Significance Labs in New York, whose strapline on their site inspired me to write this post. Whilst a wonderful concept, it's limited to the United States. So for me, what about the other 6.7 billion people? In particular, the needs of those in the world who have far fewer resources than what we often take for granted in rich countries? Surely, there are commercial opportunities that are being missed because the customers are not part of the "worried well"?

Perhaps, it will be Health XL that helps us in that regard. Health XL, based in Dublin, Ireland is the world's first truly global digital health mentor network [I'm one of their mentors!] Their founder, Martin Kelly, last month blogged about their idea for the next generation of startup accelerators. A couple of things stood out for me in their Accelerator 2.0 concept, global vs local, & learn from the world vs learn from Silicon Valley. Kudos on their bravery to challenge dogma in the startup world. 

In terms of the future, maybe we just accept the status quo? Maybe we accept that these are problems that are too big to tackle, and it's preferable to focus on the easier problems, right?  

Maybe we continue to focus our collective energy on developing awesome health apps despite only 20% of 65-74s in the UK using a smartphone? In those aged 75+, that figure drops to 5%!  

Are health apps the best use of our finite resources?  For many decision makers, apps are often perceived as 'innovative', but do the biggest users of health & social care actually benefit from them? How much is being spent on giving patients online access to their medical records? Would a better use of that budget be to hire extra doctors & nurses? What's the point of investing in wearable technology when we often don't invest enough in the human aspect of social care?

As much as I love digital technology, in my opinion, technology doesn't always have to be 'digital by default'. It's about responding to the need in front of us, which requires genuinely listening to the patients (and those that care for them). Perhaps we forget that tried & tested hardware and software exists everywhere, i.e. human beings. Maybe all some patients want is a smile and a reassuring hug? I believe the healing power of human touch is very often overlooked.   

I see it as out duty to use our collective talents to help those who are often helpless and vulnerable, the voices seldom heard, the people who reside at the very fringes of society and our minds. 

[For readers of my blog, there is a 17% discount on the cost of registering for the digihealth pulse Virtual 2014 conference. Use coupon code MANEESHDHFUTURE when registering]

[Disclosure: I have no commercial ties with any of the companies or individuals named in this post]

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