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What does the digital age mean for the public's health?

49295If you are reading this blog on a smartphone you are not alone. 62% of UK adults have one, and this is increasing significantly each year. About a quarter of Public Health Matters’ readership access this site from a smartphone or tablet. The digital age is allowing us to be more connected and with greater access to data than ever before, and mobile phones have become the most widely-adopted technology in human history.

So, what does this mean for public health? I believe that digital public health and in particular mobile health – the use of mobile communication and devices for achieving health outcomes – is at a tipping point. Mobile has some unique assets – not least availability, affordability, interactivity, accessibility and portability – that open up new possibilities for supporting people to protect and improve their health.

At PHE our own work has shown the positive impact that mobile health can make. Our free SMS smoking cessation programme achieves a success rate 200% better than going it alone and initial data suggests our smokefree app achieves significantly better results. Crucially, these are free, evidence-based products that support the NHS and Local Government to deliver their objectives. It’s not just health improvement where mHealth has potential, either – we also know that SMS reminders significantly increase screening uptake and more evidence of impact seems to emerge every day.

I am convinced that these results, while promising, have not even scratched the surface of what mHealth can and will do. Smartphones can already accurately measure your heart rate, automatically count how many steps you take, scan a barcode and tell you how much sugar is in it, remind you to buy carrots when you are next in Tesco (ask your Android smartphone to do this with Google Voice) and more. This is unlocking unprecedented possibilities for personalised high calibre interventions (such as Sleepio), integrated and anticipatory health records (such as Babylon), quantifying our behaviour (such as TicTrac) and supportive social communities of interest (such as Fitocracy). That’s before wearable devices or the Internet of Things have become mainstream, as well.

So, mHealth has a clear and present potential to support our public health objectives. Within PHE we have an ambition to support a million people per annum with mHealth products by 2016. We are doing this by developing an mHealth product portfolio, following behavioural science frameworks – notably COM-B – promoting these products using existing channels such as Change4Life, building an integrated customer relationship management programme and using social media as an analytical and engagement platform.

This is not about going it alone - we want to work with entrepreneurs and academics to develop and promote great mHealth products: Health X is one example of this.  Neither is it about being naïve– we must understand the impact of mHealth on inequalities and promote evidence based approaches (a recent news story that found that the overwhelming majority of running/fitness apps don’t make any use of evidence-based motivational techniques) There is more information about our ‘on-demand’ strategy here.

PHE is also partnering globally. Last week we announced that PHE has signed up to the WHO and ITU global initiative, ‘Be He@lthy, Be Mobile’. We hope that by being part of this initiative we can share what we have learned, support the UK digital health sector and learn from global best practice.

We will use channels like this one to be open and transparent about our work in this area. I would really welcome your comments and questions – in such a fast evolving area what have I missed? What are your favourite examples of digital public health?

Featured image via PHE image library. Used under Crown Copyright.

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  1. Comment by Andrew Billett posted on

    Fascinating. Great to include links to mHealth apps that I never new existed.

    • Replies to Andrew Billett>

      Comment by Anderson Mtalaki posted on

      My mobile has severally provided the one stop shop for remedies whenever I had common ailments like flu, sore throat etc. I live and work in the sea port city of Mombasa, Kenya where temperatures are normally in the range of 30-35deg.C. This Tuesday was my second day second day in high altitude Nairobi (15deg.C). I quickly caught a sore throat after taking in cold drinks. At dinner time, I searched the net over my phone and got this natural cure of sugarcane juice which I found at the tuck chemist across Gaberone Street. It worked overnight and my Wednesday was jovial and had fully adapted to Nairobi climate. That was a digitally sound solution.

  2. Comment by Bren posted on

    Hello Kevin,

    Thank you for a really interesting and visionary blog.

    I think the mHelath has a very important part to play in access to information, a service in itself and the potential to look at a varied approach to reaching out to people and communities.

    The area I would like to see, as a key approach, is around inequalities and how this could/would/does have a significant impact (as opposed to being successful.

    A still to be fully utilised area, but we may still need face to face in addition to technology too.

    Best wishes,


  3. Comment by Grace posted on

    Great Blog Kevin. Really good to see that Public Health England are embracing new technology as a way to improve Public Health.

    As a Social Marketing agency who have been engaging with young people for the last 4-5 years, we know the value of mobile phones. 98% of teenagers own one and check it up to 150 times a day! (source:

    This is something Public Health professionals cannot ignore!

    Check out this promo video for an app we created for a college in Bucks to challenge students' attitudes and perceptions around risky behaviours such as drinking alcohol and smoking:

    Last year we also launched our Parent App to challenge parents of year 9 students' misperceptions around similar risk taking behaviours:

    Mobile is not the future any more, it is the now!

    Social Sense

  4. Comment by Patrick Olivier posted on

    Here's a rather different example. In collaboration with various local actors here in Newcastle, Madeline Balaam, Andy Garbett and Ed Jenkins (from Newcastle University) developed FeedFinder, see:'s an app that allows mothers (and others) to rate shops, restaurants and other places for the quality of their provision for breastfeeding mothers (with a view overcoming this barrier which the mothers themselves identified). This was not the outcome of a big project, but a small piece of opportunistic participatory design and development work that responded to a real need. It already has over 1000 places reviewed (mostly in the North-East) and several thousand users. FeedFinder is an information resource that would have cost an awful lot for an institutional public health actor to develop and maintain, but more importantly this is a different take on mobile public health in that it's a vision of developing platforms that empower people to share information and collaboratively manage their lives (and lifestyles) -- I'd argue that the real power of mobile is it's potential to leverage the "social" -- sopcial models of public health that have not to date been possible.

  5. Comment by health tips posted on

    Fascinating. Great to include links to mHealth apps that I never new existed.