Healthtech is everywhere. With the rise of wearables (increasingly so in 2014) and tracking apps comes not only greater health awareness but a need for greater integration between healthcare and technology. It’s so commonplace now we hardly notice it. But think about recent tech developments – the iOS 8 HealthKit, Google’s Baseline study and Nanoparticle platform and more fitness-based wristbands than you can shake a stick at, most of the companies that dominate the tech market share are getting in on it. However, despite developers and the general public being up to speed with the benefits of modern technology in healthcare, our own government has always fallen behind. Until now.

Take a hint!

Given that the government oversees our National Health Service, it does seem to have taken an embarrassingly long time for parliament to have caught on about this growing area. And they’re not exactly doing anything quite yet. There is a lot of talk though, which looks like it could turn into action.

Despite vague attempts in the past, like the ‘Learning Lab’ (a research facility that aimed to boost NHS digital technology uptake), and the online health strategy unveiled in 2012, our healthcare experience remains much the same as it was pre-mobile and internet days.

But news came in mid-November of the proposed ‘Digital Health Strategy,’ a strategy that acknowledges failed attempts in the past to digitise the health service, and wants to turn this around. It calls for greater use of digital and mobile technology in a bid to improve the quality of patient care and benefit overall health, as well as some surprising plans for medical data accessibility.

Now, a couple of weeks later, Labour MP Jon Cruddas has called for a ‘Digital Charter’ that will help the public trust the government with its data. And around the same time an independent review from the Labour Party has emerged, focusing on the need for an expert technology ethics council to help address complex challenges, amongst them health monitoring. Three buses, anyone?

Westminster plugs in

As well as generally improving their digital savvy-ness, the government’s ‘Digital Health Strategy’ includes plans to track the NHS’s ‘digital health maturity,’ whilst improving multichannel access to NHS-accredited information and digital services. From the end of 2015, external health apps and other digital services will be able to apply for approval to use the NHS brand and be available through the NHS Choices website.

Tim Kelsey, NHS England’s National director for patients and information, is chairing the associated National Information Board. He says, “We must embrace modern technology to help us lead healthier lives, and if we want – to take more control when are ill. Our ambition is to make the NHS a digital pioneer for our patients and citizens.”

Better use of technology should save the NHS money, freeing up funds for equipment and medical research.

The most interesting proposal however, is the aim to give all citizens access to their GP records by 2015. Records would be viewed through approved apps and digital platforms, and by 2018, remaining health records, such as those kept by hospitals, mental health and social care services, will also be available online. Cutting-edge stuff. Well, for the NHS anyway.

There are of course security concerns when it comes to patient records, and these are inevitably heightened when you bring the World Wide Web into it.

Labour switches on

Most likely in response to the proposals set out by the government, Labour have laid down the law with regards to government medical data handling. Cruddas claims that “Digital government won’t give people more control over their lives unless it’s trusted with citizen’s data. Right now, it’s not proving itself worthy of that trust. There are too many mishaps and too much confusion.”

He argued that establishing a Digital Charter would “protect individuals and establish their rights over their own data and digital identity,” with its three core principles being open data, digital democracy and digital inclusion.

Basically, it’s all about closing the gap between people and politics – ideas put forward at this year’s Future Shock event – in a security-conscious manner.

It’s great to see healthtech finally sparking conversation in parliament, and with security concerns being addressed upfront, moving forward with proposals and gaining public backing (hopefully) shouldn’t be too difficult.

Cruddas explained his ideas on data confidentiality with regards to sharing data between government services and institutions (which is handy for cutting costs), saying that if it’s done right, “we can make a simple offer to everyone – if you’ve already told one bit of government something about you, you shouldn’t need to tell any other bit of government the same thing. And we can balance that with a simple promise – no bit of government will get access to the data you’ve given without your explicit consent.”

Of course this is all speculation at this point, and the details of online security will need to made clear before many are willing to sign up. Assuming the safeguarding of public information all goes to plan, and add to this a dedicated digital ethics committee working purely to make technology and digital services more helpful to citizens; the whole thing looks pretty sound.

Viva la (digital) revolution!

When 21% of the public don’t use UK government services online, it’s clear there’s something lacking when it comes to the range and quality of online and digital services provided, particularly when technology dominates so many other industries and daily life. With healthtech becoming more popular by the day, it’s really the only logical next step for our National Health Service.

Secretary of State Jeremy Hunt says: “I want the NHS to be a world class showcase of what innovation can achieve. Today’s plan sets out how we can give patients 21st century, personalised healthcare.”

Hear hear!