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Innovation has a role to play in chronic diseases prevention

Choices for ways of preventing chronic diseases need to harness citizens’ views

When it comes to chronic diseases prevention, there is growing interest in new technologies and innovations which encourage healthier living. These include mobile health/fitness apps and wearable devices. They can help reduce exacerbation of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and emphysema through better nutrition, physical exercise. They can also lead to ‘more and better data’ that constantly monitor patients’ conditions, as well as supporting self-management and self-empowerment.

There is also increasing interest in new technologies and innovations in the field of e-health including telemedicine and mobile health (m-health) to help provide more efficient and personalised services to patients. E-health covers many aspects, ranging from engaging patients in self-managing their chronic health conditions, to improving access to diagnosis of rare and complex diseases, to improving health literacy.

Person-centered medicine

While e-health cannot substitute conventional medicine entirely, it is potentially a powerful tool to support more personalised and person-centred medicine. Sweden’s Esther Network provides one example of good practice. Following the experience of one elderly citizen—called Esther—the Esther Network was set up in 1997. Esther had to report her story to 36 different service providers before getting the care she needed. The objective of the network is to significantly improve the care-giving referral system in Sweden by consolidating over 7,000 care institutions onto one single online network.

For prevention, a growing number of free apps, on-line courses, resources and communities exist to spread information, facilitate contacts, and offer peer-to-peer support and motivation. However, it is often difficult to choose between the many available options. It is also tricky to understand if users data is stored, used securely and respecting privacy. In this respect,  healthcare professionals and civil society organisations need to play a key role in testing, selecting and recommending the most useful apps.

High-tech social enterprises are also entering this market, developing products that make economic profit while also delivering health benefits to their users. For example, the Bulgarian social enterprise Jumpido  has developed educational software for primary school students which combines maths problem-solving with physical activity using Microsoft’s Kinect technology. Its goal is to help promote healthy bodies and minds in school.

Barriers to adoption

Despite their rapid advancement, new technologies and innovations still face a number of barriers within the European healthcare system. First and foremost is a lack of trust and coordination between the actors involved in the research and innovation processes.

On the one hand, the public sector invests heavily in ‘risky’ technology and innovation, only to be left out of the commercialisation processes that are dominated by for-profit private companies. Apple’s use of the Internet, GPS, and touchscreen technologies developed by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency is one prominent example.

On the other hand, public policy changes and regulatory structures can hamper private sector investment in research and innovation. For example, a recent report by consultancy Deloitte focusing on the pharma industry  highlighted the time-consuming approval process for medical innovations in many EU countries. This occurs in addition to the barriers of financial access and slow technology transfer rate in Europe.

The role of the citizen

There is also concern for the role of citizens and users, who have the potential to be ignored, disregarded, manipulated, or ‘used’ in the tech innovation processes. The example of drugs withdrawn from the market due to previously alleged ‘unrecognised’ side effects is quite instructive here.

If we are to harness the potential of technology and innovation for better health outcomes, we do not only need technological progress: social innovation is also very important. Not only to involve and empower citizens and patients but also to foster collaboration between different disciplines across multiple levels of government. It can also be useful to promote integrated approaches to health and social care, switching the focus from managing diseases to prevent them.

Finding new medicines, introducing new medical technologies and developing smarter digital care tools to manage health conditions and health-care systems could greatly improve the lives of people with chronic non-communicable diseases. It could also help prevent their insurgence. However, investment in research and innovation – including in social innovation – is low in Europe.

How can we reverse this?

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