I think it’s a very exciting time to be working in health and social care. Nurses, Doctors, Social Workers and Allied Health Professionals are often the first point of contact for anyone in need of health and social care around the clock, 24 hours the day of every week for 365 days every year.
Recent research shows that a person with a severe and chronic illness will spend on average 12 hours a year with health and social care workers. Whereas an individual who has transient or mild illness will only spend on average 4 hours a year with health and social care professionals. The remaining 5000 hours a year are spent socializing with peers, work colleagues and alike. The interaction that happens during these 5000 hours not only provides social support but more and more, evidence shows that these interactions influence individuals’ health choices and behaviours.
In other words, if you take the example of obesity, you are not only what you eat, but you are also what your friend eats and what your friend’s friend eats. What we are seeing is that people with similar health behaviours tend to cluster together and reinforce each other’s health choices. This same principle can be applied to networks where people share similarities in diet, smoking, exercise and other health behaviours. Whilst most of our traditional focus in delivering care has been on the limited 12 hours of contact with our health services, a growing body of research suggests that we can improve people’s lives by looking at influencing how people use the 5000 hours when they are in their own environments and social networks.
So the question is: if social networks are so influential in our health choices and behaviours, what can health & social care workers do to ensure that the people we see continue to reap benefits of our interventions long after they have seen us? I think the answer to this lies in using the existing connections in social networks to push relevant and pertinent health information. After all, knowledge is power. But wait; can we really expect people to change their health behaviours by bombarding them with health information and hoping that they share it amongst their various networks? Probably not. We need sophisticated ways to embed health information into everyday life and make attending to health in social networks something that is competitive, fun and rewarding.
Cue digital technology and the advent of the always on and always connected digital generation. In the UK, 52 million people are connected to the Internet with 70% of us waking up to a cup of coffee in one hand whilst we scan the Internet with a smart device with the other. It is only a matter of time before this 70% becomes the 100%. Those who argue that this technology is for young people often miss the fact that today’s young people are tomorrow’s older people. The amount of time people spend with their online and offline social networks will continue to increase and offers ample opportunity to influence better health choices and improve health behaviours.
Digital technology permeates through every aspect of our lives from shopping to banking. It is inevitable that it will also increasingly play a bigger role in health and social care. People who use services and work in health/social care have a great opportunity to influence this direction of travel. The technology already exists: electronic health records, health apps, predictive health analytics, data visualization, clinical decision support tools are already finding their way onto wards and community clinics. In a few places this technology is already helping clinicians to spot, report and address risks and health concerns not only faster but more cost effectively. While much work remains to be done to connect these devices and the data they generate in universal and interchangeable ways, the really exciting thing is the vast opportunity this emerging trend offers to amplify our impact on health outcomes by combining our traditional skills with digital technology.