The latest strategy from the Department of Health & Social Care, Our Plan for Patients, is – perhaps unsurprisingly – focused almost entirely on managing demand: ambulance response times, availability of GP appointments, social-care capacity. Prevention is mentioned in only one paragraph. Yet prevention – reducing demand – must be at the core if the NHS is going to survive on a sustainable basis. When governments and decision-makers move health systems from reacting to predicting, people’s health can be transformed. But predictive, preventative health systems require information, data and research. Wearables continue to be an untapped mine of such information and can help drive better decisions and resource allocation in health systems like the NHS.
Advances in wearable devices and their increasing uptake have come at the right time. Demographic and economic pressures are making our current health-care model in the UK increasingly unsustainable. It is widely acknowledged that we will need to embrace technology to improve health outcomes and make health-care delivery more efficient. Indeed, in the UK wearables are already used to promote healthier lifestyles and to monitor and treat people with chronic health conditions.
However, existing efforts are insufficient to meet the challenges we face, and we are not yet fully realising their benefits to help people to lead healthier lives. The most transformative advances in wearable-device technology lie in the near future: we will soon be able to use wearables to detect disease earlier, enabling large-scale prevention programmes, giving people more control over their health and contributing to the personalisation and democratisation of health care, especially in the NHS context. Widespread adoption will ensure that the tech becomes more sophisticated, allowing more people to benefit and giving researchers access to powerful datasets. Unfortunately, and as is often the case, the demographic groups that could benefit most from adopting new technology are usually the least likely to embrace it.
We must go further and faster. For the UK government, we recommend a five-point plan that will ensure the country is able to make the most of wearables now and take advantage of future technological developments.