Re-thinking Public Health in Wales

David Jones says new technologies should be utilised better within Welsh healthcare.

Grandson: “But surely only really well-trained people used to do it” ?

Me: “Do what” ?

G: “Drive a car or truck without a computer”

M: “No, pretty much everyone did”

G: “Wow – Didn’t anyone ever get hurt if some stupid human crashed into them”

M: “Yeah – hundreds of people got hurt”

G: “Wow – But no one actually died” ?

M: “In Wales ? Yes. About two people every week died”

G: “Wow – So what changed? I mean.. why did you decide to respect life and stop it happening” ?

That, of course, is a conversation from the future (I suspect Grandchildren will be some way off for me), but in 2014, the last year for which we have statistics, over 1,000 people were seriously injured and over 100 died on Welsh roads.

And those numbers have been consistent for the last few years.

The public safety response has been limited to managing the risk. We create laws that impose limitations on speed across every road, we employ lovely people with lollipop sticks to stand outside schools at drop-off and pick-up times.

The way we think of the problem defines how we respond to it.

We think about accidents as traffic problems, which is ironic given that the most famous quote in innovation:

“If I’d given them what they wanted I’d have built a faster horse” – Henry Ford

But, in the same way that Amazon destroyed bookshops with a website, a very different solution is required, and using technology in the ways that Tesla and Google are is only the first part of the solution.

Here’s a video posted in January 2016 of a Tesla reversing itself out of a garage and here’s another from October 2015 showing how, on a dark, busy road a certain accident was avoided.

Two weeks ago the reduction in accidents was quoted as 50%, and that is just based on the nascent technology which is available today – We all know the pace that software and technology moves.

But what about thinking of traffic accidents as part of a wider public health issue ?

Why not group together all causes of ill-health, accident and death?

Cancer, stroke, degenerative illness such as Parkinson’s disease are already part of a mixed-economy in Wales. The third-sector has a strong voice and does an effective job lobbying Government.

From a public health perspective, so much of the work related to the way that the behaviour change of each individual can be influenced. Welsh Government initiatives such as the excellent Prudent Healthcare strategy emphasises this. The most obvious messages included exercising more, eating better and smoking less. And this presents a challenge for the wider health system – Part of it which includes reactive medical science, deployed by both expensive technology and health care, but so much of the long-term change is fundamentally marketing – Public awareness campaigns involving advertising. These are difficult, frustrating and slow changes to implement.

However, there is one area of behaviour change that is accelerating, and that is our new friend, software. From Smartphones to Facebook, one industry knows more than any other how to measure, anticipate and provoke change.

So that’s it – Technology isn’t just better, cheaper and more convenient, it can be safer too, but only when brought directly into the conversation.

And the same, of course, can be said today for vaping compared to the old-fashioned alternatives Analogue Cigarettes…. And whilst we’re on the subject can I throw in a vote for robots helping doctors to sew-up patients after surgery?

David Jones is a Public Services Digital Consultant.

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