It is called the smartphone, and most of us already carry one about with us at all times, says Tara Donnelly, CEO of the Health Innovation Network in South London, "Smartphones can help people manage their health quite differently either on their own or with accessories such as blood pressure cuffs, otoscopes which visualise the inner ear, thermometers, heart rate monitors or mobile ECGs," Donnelly says. "People who currently need regular checks can monitor their own condition and one can see a day when the information can be sent to a clinician who can say 'you know what, you are absolutely fine and you don't need to come in'."

Smartphones may even be able to sense when a patient is approaching a crisis and alert the doctor before the worst happens. An Israeli company is developing a product that records a patient's voice and detects tiny changes that presage heart failure, replacing endless monitoring in hospital by a simple daily check on the patient's own phone.

As part of the DigitalHealth.London collaborative with the capital’s other two Academic Health Science Networks, NHS England and MedCity, the Health Innovation Network’s role is to search for ideas with potential and help them gain acceptance in the NHS by putting the word out through a team of 'digital navigators'. These are people with digital knowledge who are also clinically qualified or experienced in working in healthcare; so they know the NHS and have extensive networks of connections..

The Digital Health.London accelerator programme supports great digital ideas achieve scale within the NHS. It looks for ideas both from the outside world and from within the NHS which has proved to be fertile ground for smartphone apps ranging from appointments systems that enable patients to schedule their own visits to clinics (and thereby cutting 'no-shows' by up to 30 per cent) called DrDoctor to Brush DJ a free app that encourages kids to clean their teeth for the full two minutes.

"These are quite simple tools that can enable clinical staff and patients get some of the productivity benefits they have seen in their personal lives," Donnelly points out. "We are trying to get the benefits of digital health in front of more patients more quickly."

The real power of the smartphone is that it can help put patients in charge of their own healthcare, Donnelly claims. They feel empowered, which is a health benefit in itself, can stay well through tracking their condition and adapting as necessary and the burden on healthcare professionals can be cut dramatically. Everyone wins.

"When looking to the future, I would particularly like to see more patients feeling confident in using digital tools to help manage their own health," Donnelly says. "We are already starting to see changes in the way clinical care is delivered: we have a product on our accelerator programme called Inhealthcare that can enable remote monitoring of warfarin or INR levels which reduces the number of hospital visits the patient has to make from 14 to two, entering their own data, and they absolutely love that."

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About the author

Tara Donnelly is an improvement enthusiast with an extensive background in leadership roles within the NHS and third sector. She has spent the past 16 years at board level including at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, as a non-executive director at Macmillan Cancer Support - the leading UK charity for people living with cancer - as Chief Executive at the West Middlesex University Hospital and as Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Operations at the Whittington Hospital. Her first role in the NHS was as a Ward Housekeeper when she was 18, prior to studying at King’s College London.