Those of us who work in government agencies are constantly looking for better ways to collect and understand health data,” Sandeep Patel, Open Innovation Manager at the US Department of Health and Human Services, told the audience at the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) interactive festival in Austin, Texas. This is obviously one good reason why government ought to be working with tech firms. Patel argued that public health organisations are currently under-using technologies which could really help to combat conditions such as child obesity, passive smoking and chronic illness. Wendy Thompson, a manager and epidemiologist at Canada’s Public Health Agency, who works at the Centre for Chronic Disease Prevention, wholeheartedly endorsed this view, regretting the fact that “government is not moving as fast as the technology”. The way in which some government agencies carry out surveys provides telling evidence. Machell Town, branch chief for the Population Health Surveillance Branch in the Division of Population Health at the US National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (CDC), revealed that when some government agencies conduct a survey they “always call people on their fixed line”.

It hardly makes sense to go through conventional channels to ask the questions when you can get the answers by using technology
Machel Town

Machell Town

The problem with these old-fashioned methods is the quality and reliability of the data gathered. Some of those who agree to take part in the survey give false information. “People don’t always tell the truth. It may not be on purpose. Maybe they just don’t remember,” Ms Town suggested. Meanwhile, both the US and Canadian government health agencies took the opportunity of the SXSW event to reach out to technology companies, in the hope of obtaining vital help in this area. “If we want to understand people’s behaviour we need to ask questions. But it hardly makes sense to go through conventional channels to ask the questions when you can get the answers by using technology,” Wendy Thompson pointed out. For example, wearables and other similar electronic tools would seem an efficient way of obtaining information on people’s health-related behaviour. This could then help to improve overall public health policy.

Better priority-setting and awareness-raising

The basic purpose of government-run public health agencies is to help improve the health of the population, especially by encouraging essential changes in behaviour. However, agencies need to know exactly what aspect of citizens’ behaviour needs changing and where exactly they should be making changes. At school? At work? In the home? On what basis do they decide which issues they should prioritise in their awareness-raising campaigns? How can government agencies decide whether encouraging people to stop smoking should take priority over motivating people to eat better? How can their efforts be adjusted for different groups of people? They also have to take into account the environment, not least the socio-economic background. 

Here again, it is essential to obtain good data. In Canada for example, “only 9.3% of children take the recommended one to one-and-a-half hours of daily physical exercise,” Wendy Thompson told the conference. This data indicates a clear need to step up efforts in this area, alert citizens, run campaigns and put forward ingenious solutions, given the fact that the low exercise rates are probably linked to the harsh climate in that part of the world. It also helps people working in the sector to understand the origins of child obesity and to take action to prevent this childhood condition leading to adult obesity. Hard figures also help hammer the point home in public messages.

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In addition to the different types of data available and their reliability, there is another important factor: the time lag between gathering and publishing data. Several months may elapse between, for example, an agency carrying out a study, poll or survey and the publication of the results and conclusions. On the other hand, data coming from wearables, search engines and geolocation are available in real time, enabling those processing the information to gain an understanding of health-related behaviour and its links to illness on a wider scale. 

People already have many ways of monitoring their own behaviour. They can do this themselves. They can download apps, follow online exercise classes live, and you can even access nutrition programmes,” Ms Thompson underlined. “There’s such a lot of data and what’s more it’s constantly being updated. So we’re now wondering how we can collect all this data that people are sharing.” It would therefore make sense to partner with the publishers of these apps and other tech companies with available health-related data, provided that users give their permission and that data privacy can be guaranteed.

Privacy guarantee and other motivating factors

If we collect this type of data, then we have to use it appropriately. The public need to know that we won’t pass on their information,” underlined Machell Town. She is certainly right to stress this point. If they wish to access citizens’ data, government agencies must start by gaining people’s trust. Re-assuring them that their data will be rendered anonymous and will remain confidential is a way of encouraging people to share this information. Ms Town added: “If we give our citizens the right tools, they’ll be able to help the government find solutions” and consequently improve public health policy. Gamification can be another way to motivate people. “We could create an app that enables people who buy healthy food at the supermarket to win points,” suggested Wendy Thompson. 

Meanwhile a number of collaborative initiatives between startups and public health institutions are already underway, such as the one in Baltimore. Teams comprising tech experts – including students, engineers, software developers and designers – have got together to show how the city could improve public health policy by making use of information and communication technology. Among the challenges taken up by the TECHealth teams, participants are looking for ways to prevent infant mortality, track the progression of asthma, tackle the problem of drug overdose, and develop new solutions for the city of Baltimore. Small grants of $5,000 to $25,000 or other types of assistance in completing their projects and getting them up and running are available in fields which the city authorities wish to prioritise. These should help to ensure that the innovators have a healthier budget, while at the same time improving the health of Baltimore citizens.

By Sophia Qadiri
Journaliste