Business Europe Health

The new research, from Medtech engineering specialists Zühlke, shows this is particularly the case where people have had GP and healthcare access problems (43% in the past 6 months), but the research also found a strong appetite from the UK population to take much more control of their own health using apps and other digital tools from the NHS. The research reveals many patients are very keen to be prescribed medical apps (49% keen, 21% ambivalent, 30% uncomfortable) to give them better choice, greater empowerment, and superior treatment.

But, Zühlke warns, the NHS needs to simplify and accelerate the adoption of such mainstream technology, as its complex structure is inadvertently blocking MedTech and other companies from working with it to provide a much-needed revolution in healthcare and preventive treatment through medical-grade digital services.

Its research findings include:

More than half of patients now self-diagnose their health problems: 55% say they used an app and/or the internet instead of going ​to a medical professional for self-diagnosis and/or treatment’ in the past 6 months.

Brits want apps on prescription, particularly to treat anxiety and depression: over 60% of the population are interested in having apps prescribed by the NHS (over 70% for those under 39, and 65% for those in their forties). There is particularly high demand for ones to treat anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders – representing 53% of those interested in a prescription app.

Healthcare access problems are common: 43% of the UK population has in the past 6 months ‘encountered challenges or difficulties’ in accessing healthcare services e.g. appointments, medical advice, ​and emergency care.

Dr James Graveston, Zühlke’s Health & MedTech lead consultant and a former hospital doctor, says: ‘In recent years, much of the population has started using fitness, diet, and wellness apps to improve their health and emotional wellbeing. For instance, you can walk into almost any gym and get detailed information about your fitness activity and even body composition straight to your mobile phone. But go into a modern hospital or GP surgery and it’s a very different story.

‘As our research shows, much of the population is raring to go and wants medical apps through the NHS to cut waits, improve treatment, and receive more information – from basic medication notifications and reminders to submit blood pressure readings, to avoiding Primary Care or hospitals altogether through weight management apps to sophisticated ones using AI to spot early-stage skin cancer.

‘Given the current national attention on NHS funding levels vs performance, action is urgently needed to allow technology to bring widespread benefits. But the highly desirable and overdue medical app revolution that the UK needs to cut queues, improve treatment outcomes, and empower patients has to be kick-started by the NHS – something it has so far been unable to do.

‘Today, the NHS has too complex a structure and little experience in introducing innovations quickly at a national scale. This is a huge block as our research shows that MedTech providers will struggle to provide medical apps outside the NHS. People don’t trust medical apps that aren’t prescribed through the NHS because of concerns about their effectiveness and medical data protection.

‘This distrust makes many people unwilling to use them unless prescribed by the NHS, which adds a lot of hurdles to the business-to-consumer model currently favoured by most patient app businesses.’

Further key findings include:

Brits are willing to share their health data: 79% of people are prepared for some or all of their medical data to be used by an appropriate app, while 21% of people would not want their personal medical data on an app under any circumstances.

People are reluctant to pay up for health apps: 51% of the population is unwilling to pay anything for a healthcare app, and only 3% would pay more than £30 per month.

Patients want NHS-endorsed apps: 74% of people most trust a healthcare app provided by the NHS, but under 10% would most trust alternative providers such as BigTech (e.g. Apple, Amazon, etc), pharma companies, or MedTech start-ups.

Dr Graveston adds: ‘The economic and medical case for a dramatic increase in the prescription of medical apps is incontrovertible. The NHS is creaking under the triple burdens of the huge and growing cost of staffing it, the inability to find sufficient numbers of staff, and the constantly rising demand for treatments.

‘By contrast apps, and other digital services, allow patients to get fast and consistent treatment, with far less cost per head. They also give patients more power over their own treatment. This is without factoring in the additional huge benefits from AI-generated insights from data analysis, allowing a whole new wave of early diagnosis and even prevention for many illnesses.

‘However, the NHS needs to be smarter in introducing and scaling proven digital technologies that are commonplace elsewhere. People often assume the NHS is a big unitary organisation, with standard equipment and procedures, rolled out from the centre. In fact, it’s the opposite, with central initiatives like the NHS App and the NHS COVID-19 app very much the exception.’

With the new NHS ICS structure, it must move rapidly to create a secure way of quickly approving apps for prescription, and invest in the technology and processes to scale them. Without this, the ability of app developers, especially start-ups and new entrants, to work their way through the NHS’s procurement complexity will remain an almost impossible task and the NHS will remain mired in its ongoing crisis of too much demand for the resources available.

Dr Graveston adds: ‘The NHS needs to change dramatically and fast so it can quickly deploy technologies that are widespread elsewhere to help the NHS unleash the innovations from the UK’s dynamic medtech sector.

‘For instance, one game-changer would be to redesign the successful NHS App into something akin to an ultra-secure app store for prescription medical apps, with hospital consultants and primary care providers like GPs and pharmacists able to “turn on” apps when prescribed, so they appear on the patient’s phone within their NHS App.’

Latest developments

Recently (June and 7, 2023) the NHS announced new procurement frameworks for digital in primary care. This, Dr Graveston adds, is: ‘a small step in the right direction, but it only applies to Primary Care software focused on handling medical records and other non-patient-facing items.

‘This sort of improved digital document handling is important, but misses what’s really needed to enable a digital healthcare revolution: a rapid way to scale digital therapeutics, digitally-enabled services, provide more empowerment to patients, and deploy AI-enabled decision-support tools.’

About the research

The research was undertaken in May 2023 for Zühlke by accredited research agency Toluna, and involved a 1,000 person representative sample of the UK adult population. Full details of the demographics available on slide 3.