Countering fake health news and raising the bar in medtech

23 November 2018

Tina Woods is Chair of the AXA Health Tech & You Awards Expert Group and CEO & Founder of Collider Health, a health innovation engine that works with corporates, government, start-ups, third sector and investors to accelerate innovation and transform health with sustainable impact at scale. She reports on AXA Health Tech & You’s latest learnings.

Keeping people well and out of hospital using the latest technology and motivating citizens to take charge of their health is a goal for most countries, and is certainly the mission of Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in Britain. A keen user of health apps himself, he wants the public to use more of them too and is also advocating that people  exercise or socialise rather than take pills – common sense, practical advice with the evidence to back it up, too.

But how do we get consumers to engage more actively in their health?  How can we change people’s behaviour to look after themselves better?  Where can we go to find evidence-based advice and tools that work and are easy to use?

From despair to where?

These are all important questions for most developed healthcare systems, especially as the digital health marketplace has gone through the classic Gartner hype cycle where the frenzied pace of technology and number of apps has heightened consumer expectations but also led to a new stage of disillusionment.  Disillusionment caused by badly designed, technology-led solutions doing very little to address real problems and could even be bad for you (the number of health apps downloaded and used beyond six weeks is astonishing small) but now increasingly exacerbated through the current ‘pandemic’ of fake news arriving on the health scene with alarming and –potentially fatal – consequences.

Leading thinkers and innovators in the health tech industry were brought together recently at the launch of the 2019  AXA Health Tech & You Awards to consider how entrepreneurs can head off disillusionment and arm the consumer with trusted, ethical tools that will prevent them falling victim to the ‘pandemic’ of false information. Forming part of the AXA Health Tech & You Expert Group defining a framework for excellence and innovation, these innovators delved into what ‘excellence’ could  look like (and indeed should look like), and explored the key ingredients and core values for companies, innovations and entrepreneurs behind them to deliver value and meet consumer expectations for trusted products and services.

Dr Mike Short, Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK Department for International Trade, and a member of the Expert Group, identifies London as the third most influential tech ecosystem in the entire world, taking together performance, funding, market research, talent and experience. Within this ecosystem, Short argues there is still much room for fulfilling unmet needs, positing ‘it is not always high-tech innovation that we need – sometimes it is simply a case of meeting unmet needs and there are many in the health tech space’. Previous AXA Health Tech & You award winners presenting at the event are testament to this and include Alex Heaton, Founder of LiveSmart, Peter Astbury, Founder of Grace (a bracelet for menopausal hot flushes), Colleen Wong, Founder and Director of Techsixtyfour, Nihara Krause, Founder and CEO, stem4 that developed the hugely successful Calm Harm app to reduce self-harming in young people and Sheana Yu, Founder of the Aergo, who shared tips of their success and how to overcome hurdles.

The pandemic of fake health news

We are witnessing a toxic combination of increasing amounts of ‘fake health news’ with people far too busy to check the facts behind the news they are regularly consuming. Claire Sanderson, Editor-in-Chief of Women’s Health magazine, said ‘trust is now pretty hard to come by – can we trust what we read? Sadly, most of the time we can’t as we live in an age of fake news and most importantly – fake health news – which can literally be a matter of life and death’.  This state of affairs has made her job progressively harder, with the internet now full of conflicting health information especially with celebrities supporting the latest health fads and trends that are not backed up by evidence – made worse by the disturbing statistics that fake health news is 70 per cent more likely to get retweeted than something that is verified, and 42 per cent of people absorbing news from just the headlines alone.

Maeve Walsh, a digital citizen advocate, reinforced this point adding that ‘while fake medical news has always been an issue, the speed with which we consume the news has exacerbated its danger’. The problems of fake news are further compounded with an astounding 12,000 fake academic journals and 400,000 fake news articles generated last year according to Dr Arup Paul, Deputy Chief Medical Director at AXA PPP healthcare. This gives a false sense of ‘academic’ validation to factually inaccurate health stories, and highlights ‘the urgent need for more quality, governance and evidence in the digital health marketplace’. Elin Haf Davies, Founder of Aparito, said that due to this false narrative, we ‘have moved away from data driven decisions and we have moved towards style-driven assumptions’; the situation now is that more stylish, slick companies are typically receiving huge amounts of funding and support from accelerators who are mesmerised by short tag lines and elevator pitches, directing essential funding away from the more serious, evidenced based competitors.

Top tips for excellence

So how do entrepreneurs ensure that they rise above the rest and prove themselves to be the ‘real deal’? The Expert Group offered tips stemming from the core values that will underpin the judging for the 2019 AXA Health Tech & You Awards:

  1. Be inclusive, understand the human behind the problem - Chris McGinley, Research Fellow at Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, argues that ‘we need to produce healthtech based on needs and especially on hidden needs, to embrace the messiness of life – we need to understand how people will actually use new products. There are 4.8 million people who haven’t used the internet and we need to seek ways to bridge the digital divide’.

  2. Focus on distribution and delivery - Eric Kihlstrom, Aging2.0 UK Chapter Lead and Tech Entrepreneur said ‘to unlock the opportunities we need to reframe how we look at them – we can use design thinking and business model innovation – so we need to think about how to distribute our products. You need to deliver for your customer and then word of mouth will push your service forward – the best-selling strategy is over-delivery. ‘

  3. Be transparent - Arup Paul argues that ‘transparency in design is the solution – let your metrics prove how your service actually works. It is essential that you use cold hard facts to back up the efficiency of your product and then once you have this, you can let your product do the talking!’

  4. Ignore the hype, build the trust - Elin Haf Davies prompts entrepreneurs to ignore the hype in healthtech and instead build up the trust by ensuring ‘that you have the data and service to back you up – use your connections and service to give you gravitas instead!’

  5. Build the evidence, show it works - Arup Paul said, ‘there are already a number of studies that prove many health apps have no obvious benefit… the successful apps are the ones that look at simple and tackle singular things – such as measuring activity such as sleep. That simplicity in design with validated sensor technology/software can actually work in the future’. Julie Bretland, CEO of Our Mobile Health, added, ‘when I first started 10 years ago there were 10 studies looking at evidence-based health apps and now there are over 3,000 – so there is promising work ongoing in this area’.

We have reached a stage in the digital health marketplace where the bar needs to be raised on what good and excellent looks like; we need to be more robust and rigorous, especially when it comes to awards. Gordon Henderson, Marketing, Digital and Innovation Director for AXA PPP healthcare, summed up the value of the AXA Awards for all stakeholders involved: ‘We are giving entrepreneurs distribution, we are giving them customers and they are giving us credibility, innovation and deep insight into the vertical that they are in – and that is really important to us, because that is something we cannot do ourselves, and that is why these awards exist’.

About the author

Tina Woods is founder of Collider Health, a health innovation catalyst that works with organisations to think and do differently and transform health with meaningful impact. She is also the founder of ColliderSCIENCE, a social enterprise to inspire young people in science and engineering and equip them with the skills to create their future.