Thanks to technology and scientific advancements, the field of medicine has completely changed. We can now cure illnesses that used to spell a death sentence only a few decades ago, and together with our lifestyles changing heavily from highly active to highly sedentary, governments, doctors and researchers all around the world are trying to remedy the epidemic of the 21st century: chronic, lifestyle-induced illnesses (such as arthritis, dementia or diabetes).
At the same time, we live in the age of data. We carry our smartphones everywhere with us, some of us wear smartwatches on our wrists at any given time (including when we sleep!), and all of us track and collect our everyday activities constantly.
At yulife, we try to take this modern ‘superpower’ and use it for good. We’re using smartphones to improve and maintain healthy habits through behavioural science, as well as taking inspiration from our Chief Wellbeing officer, Dr Rangan Chatterjee, and his 4 pillar plan. However, there’s a lot more to be done, and our analysis of the latest government Green Paper, “Advancing Our Health: Prevention in the 2020s”, shows that the UK government agrees.
In this paper, the government recognises the importance of preventive medicine: promoting healthier lifestyles in order to prevent illnesses, rather than only treating illnesses as and when they happen. In other words, it’s proactive medicine.
The paper identifies the three biggest challenges to our health today: smoking, obesity, and mental ill-health. Although the government has been relatively successful in lowering smoking rates, when it comes to obesity, this is not the case.
Two thirds of adults in Britain are either overweight or obese. This terrifying statistic becomes scarier when you consider that these rates have doubled since 1993! We know that obesity is a risk factor in many illnesses, like diabetes, heart disease and stroke, and some cancers - which is why it’s one of the main issues the report tackles.
Fighting obesity includes nutrition, but also physical activity - regular activity can reduce our risk of hip fractures by 68%, type 2 diabetes by 40%, heart disease by 35%, and depression by 30%. The report emphasises the significance of adding physical activity into your daily routine in a way that will allow you to maintain it in the long-term: during your daily commute, by walking or cycling.
We know that mental health is important as it is, but it’s also hugely linked to our physical health. Mental ill-health is associated with reductions in life expectancy of 10 to 20 years! The paper stresses how health is not just the absence of illness - it’s a wellbeing state of mind, too.
After laying out the main obstacles, the report addresses the solutions the government can and will take to overcome them. These solutions can be split into 4 groups: the use of technology and data, personalising support, promoting mental health literacy, and moving on from treatment to prevention.
Technology and data
Using technology means a more proactive and predictive type of medical treatment, which will be able to solve problems before or as early as they occur. The report gives the example of genomics and artificial intelligence: the NHS would be able to diagnose and cure a disease in the womb, so that the baby is born healthy.
The ubiquity of technology allows the NHS to integrate personal data about our everyday health into our health plans and treatments. It also lets individuals access their NHS data from their smartphones and interact with their treatment plans more easily. This is particularly important, as it gives people the tools and power to take care of themselves, rather than relying on medicine only when something goes wrong.
The NHS has already started implementing certain digital solutions to better the lives of people. The Southwark Digital Health Check-Up Tool texted people who did not respond to the offer to get a general check-up, and offered them a digital check-up instead. A third of the candidates agreed, and more than a tenth of them were found to be at high risk for heart attack and stroke, so they went on to complete face-to-face check-ups, saving precious time and resources for both the NHS and the patients.
The wealth of data and advanced technology, such as AI, enable a much more focused, personalised type of medical support. “The data we generate about our health, our activities, our genomes and our environment can empower us in unimaginable ways,” The report suggests. “We can tailor our diet to meet our metabolism, we can account for air pollution in our exercise plans, and we can take action to prevent painful diseases decades before they would begin. And we know this is only the beginning.”
Instead of offering the same check-ups and screenings to everyone, we now have the technology to tailor the necessary check-ups based on risk. So a smoker might get invited for lung cancer screenings, whilst a person with a high BMI get blood tests more frequently than others. Personalised care can be less intrusive, provide better value for money, and allow the system to identify conditions earlier, which in turn can save money on treating them and the conditions that may follow.
In the age of data awareness, people may not be willing to share their data so freely. However, previous campaigns have indicated that many people will share details to receive information and treatment - more than 7.1 million people have already responded to these offers.
Mental health literacy
The paper acknowledges that despite the rise in mental health awareness in the last decade, many people are still not informed on ways to improve and maintain their own mental health.
This is why one of the main objectives of the government, as set in the report, is to increase mental health ‘literacy’. This means giving people the skills, knowledge and confidence to maintain and improve their mental health. It’s joined by campaigns that are already running in schools, making mental health compulsory in the curriculum.
Treatment to prevention
All of the previous sections culminate in the question of treatment vs prevention. The government agrees that the 2020s would start the age of prevention, when we can use data and technology to help to build more personalised forms of medical intervention for mental and physical health conditions. It’s also better value for money: for every £1 spent on public health interventions, there was a £14 of benefit to wider society.
This can be done by allowing people to connect their own data into their records if they choose to do so, giving people personalised advice based on this data, providing people with the tools and motivation to make informed choices through behavioural science, and making healthier choices accessible to everyone. The government will also use “Social Prescribing”, which is when GPs refer patients to activities or services in their community that can help their overall wellbeing.
In order to make prevention as successful as possible, the report supports more pioneering research into the subject, as well as the need of multiple government departments (locally and nationally) to work together to achieve success. It also stresses the need for countries to treat the wellbeing of their people seriously, and announce that they will develop and launch the Composite Health Index, which will work similarly to the GDP to provide an indicator of national health, enabling governments to assess their health systems using real nationwide data.
Showing the way forward
yulife believes that lifestyle medicine is the way forward, and we’re happy to hear that the government agrees! We think the report has shown a deep understanding of what’s necessary in the modern health system, and we commend the use of technology and data in the process.
We believe businesses and start-ups such as ours can and should promote the new programme and help in any way we can. yulife already provides an amazing tool that rewards healthy behaviours such as walking and meditating, which helps our members maintain these habits and become healthier and happier. Using apps like ours, the government can really push forward its new agenda and advance the health of the nation!
Read more about how yulife helps people improve their health here.