For many years in public health we have been thinking in numbers because we view health issues in terms of a population.
But I believe the more digital technology advances, the more we are able to learn that there’s not just a ‘one size that fits all’ solution.
In the mid-1800s, there was an outbreak of cholera in London. It was at this time William Farr, a British epidemiologist and one of the founders of medical statistics, studied people’s death records.
Farr wrongly argued the reason why people were dying was air pollution.
However, after a third outbreak of this disease, Farr found conclusive evidence, with the help of physician John Snow, that the actual cause of infection was drinking untreated sewage water which polluted parts of the River Thames where cholera was rife.
This shift in Farr’s position significantly changed the way public health specialists began to understand how diseases spread.
Digital as the disrupter of public health
You may be asking yourself how does the above history lesson relate to digital and public health?
Well, in my 3 years at PHE I’ve learnt that we are an organisation that exists to collate data about the nation's health and use this evidence to make improvements to the quality of life of each member of the population.
Like Farr, in order to achieve this we need to explore new ways of thinking, because while we are able to do some great work in all areas of public health, whether it’s interrogating and analysing data or looking at how we can change behaviour through interventions - there is a disconnect in how we do this in a more coordinated fashion.
And this is where the digital disruption of public health can help us support and provide effective solutions that make a real difference to the health of all.
Citizen-centred health helps individuals on a journey to better health
The advent of digital means we are now able to reach people more directly with relevant content, which includes advice and services, to provide personalised behavioural change across a wider scale.
As outlined in our digital strategy, my vision is to ensure that we put the user of our products at the heart of what we to do by designing and providing a service based on citizens’ needs.
I believe that we can take this a step further in meeting public health needs.
For example, one of our objectives might be to get people to stop smoking. But while looking at the needs of the individual who smokes we might find they also suffer from mental health issues like depression.
It’s through this discovery that we may identify the root cause of their addiction.
By addressing their needs in this way we can improve their quality of life over all by encouraging them to eat healthier food and exercise more, which may have a positive impact on them both physically and mentally.
The knock on effect of this support could increase their confidence and help them be more social and less prone to smoking or becoming depressed.
A digital solution could be an app designed to support someone to quit smoking, which also collects information that helps show the cause of their addiction is stress related.
The app could then be further developed to direct the person to the latest mental health support and nutritional advice.
It’s through this tailored digital approach that we can be the most effective in meeting the public health needs of a diverse population.
Fundamentally, digital can help us re-imagine the way we provide all aspects of public health, by improving both the efficiency and value of our offer.
Interested in digital projects at PHE? Read other related digital blogs.