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Telemedicine

Barcelona prescribes mobile health tech to save lives

“In Barcelona more than 100 people die every year without anybody knowing. They have no family, friends and nobody cares for them. This is one of the saddest things I have ever heard.”

This is Bárbara Vallespín Peré, speaking at the Nuance Healthcare Partner Event in Tenerife, Spain in June this year. She is manager of the mHealth Competence Centre at Mobile World Capital, a programme that promotes the use of mobile technologies in healthcare to change business and society and promote the role of Barcelona, the capital of the semi-autonomous region of Catalonia in Spain’s north-east. And Vallespín believes that mobile technology can help reduce the miserable stories of illness and neglect.

Phone apps for example could be used to remind a user when to take medication or some other prescribed action. Or they could be used to foster a healthy lifestyle such as encouragement to take exercise.

“[Apps] help patients to take a much more active role in the management of their condition, what we call ‘patient empowerment’,” says Vallespín, a telecoms engineering graduate with deep experience of the practical applications of biomedicine in hospitals.

“Thirty-four per cent of people say they would use health or fitness apps if a doctor recommended them. There are 40,000 medical apps and 100,000 health or fitness apps. But lots of people get an app then don’t use it – about 24%.”

The answer to this conundrum lies in a more programmatic approach to the application of technology to healthcare, Vallespín believes.

“We need to train medical professionals in the usage of mobile technologies,” she says. “They need to understand it’s a tool that can help them in their everyday work and a way to improve efficiency of internal systems in hospitals.”

More data: 50 per cent of those surveyed predict than in five years healthcare apps and technology will be used more broadly. It is Vallespín’s belief that mHealth could save €99bn in the EU alone by 2017 if fully implemented.

Self-service helps. In Catalonia, individuals have access to a Personal Health Folder that offers access to their healthcare information. As for those Barcelona citizens dying alone, a project called Vincles is used to create circles of care around vulnerable people so that families, friends and social services as well as healthcare specialists can provide some form of backup.

In a way, she says, this is a return to the old traditions of Mediterranean life where families and local people have cared for their own for centuries.

“We’re going back to the little towns where people looked after each other by community. That person has to buy the bread, see a pharmacist and if that person has not seen that person for a week then that has to raise an alarm.”

Of course it’s not just enough to say “there’s an app for that”. Vallespín wants to see technical, clinical and ethical evaluations to ensure sanctioned apps are fit for purpose. This, she says, might require a governing body like the US’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But, she adds, the EC supports this view so it’s not as if Catalonia is acting in isolation.

“The healthcare system as we understand it today is not sustainable,” she says. “We have to integrate new tools that help the system to change processes and provide services deliverable in an efficient way. And mobile technologies are a very valuable tool to achieve those objectives. We have a big problem right now because of the chronic conditions linked to the elderly population and that puts strain on the system.”

Handsets will be critical to a future healthier society.

“The mobile phone is something we love and is part of our body so the reason this trend came was because you need to have something that’s always with you. This is something that touches our lives and makes us active players in the system.”

And it’s not just for patients: more of us can participate and become more engaged, as blood donors for example, might be informed that their altruism has saved lives. Apps can help people find access to pharmacists and Vallespín also sees a role for wearables and sensors in fabrics that measure vital signs.

She observes no major privacy concerns among citizens if security and safety are well implemented in mHealth.

“I don’t find resistance and in fact we’re very lucky,” she says. “Catalonia is very active in the field of e-health and people are very receptive. We need to change processes, culture and more. People want to stay healthy and there’s a big social trend in that children are told from school they have to eat in a healthy way and take care of their health.”

“A bigger problem is the way healthcare provision is delivered to the user. The big change will come from the citizens, not the healthcare industry itself.”

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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