The role that technology plays in supporting our health and wellbeing is often underexplored. Instead the focus is often put on medical interventions (i.e. treatments, medications etc.), and other more ‘natural’ feel-good factors such as walking and healthy eating. But what role, if any, can technology play in this?

Supporting people to manage their health

Technology is widely used to help people to manage their own health. As Martine explains, quite basic and accessible kit helps her to monitor her diabetes and also her blood pressure. As she has the equipment to do this at home, it means that she can log the relevant information herself “rather than going to the doctors.” Similarly, a group of ladies acknowledged the widespread use of blood pressure monitors in their lives and a woman who is experiencing high blood pressure and who is anaemic felt that access to equipment that she could use to monitor her health at home would be useful and would “keep [her] informed” between visits to the doctors.

Equipment to monitor your health could also flag up issues before they reach an extreme point. In Dave’s story he talks about how his mother became seriously at risk due to her diabetes and blood sugar levels. Following this incident, she was given a piece of equipment to monitor her levels and Dave feels that if the family would have had access to monitoring equipment for this at an earlier stage, then they “would have spotted the problem” sooner. Mark, who does have equipment at home to monitor his heart, talks about how he uses it. The machine is used at home for 24 hours, whereas without it he would have to go into hospital for that time period, and as he describes, “I’d be just taking up a bed and taking up medical staff’s time and amenities”. What this suggests, is that technology that supports people to monitor their own health can firstly, pick up issues before they become a high risk to the individual but also through empowering people to monitor their own health, free up resourcing in the healthcare system.

Helping with physical health

GMNCR Social Licensees Macc and Inspiring Communities, Together have been working with groups in Salford and Manchester to capture stories and experiences of older people who have been using activity-tracking technology to support their physical health. This short film summarises the findings from these stories.

Rebecca, an Ageing Well Development Worker tried a device out herself and stated that “it does make you aware of how many steps you take” and that through using it she has “come to be aware that I’m not as activities as some of my colleagues.” This awareness of physical activity is helping people to make adjustments to their daily routines to get better results. As Geoff explains, “I think its helping me do a bit more exercise, change my lifestyle a bit” and Marion noted that the device made her motivated to do more -“I wanted to see if I could do better than that”.

Referring to a healthy eating app, Jennifer describes how she used it to log her eating habits and vitamin intake. As she states, “I think it just jogs you up a little bit” and makes you think about eating that bit healthier. This self-assessment was also important to an avid cycler. Whilst talking to one of the Community Reporters he acknowledges that self-assessment is important, and although technology can support this, it was for him about knowing how he feels.

In Kim’s story, she makes an important point about the use of technology to support people’s health, specifically older people’s health when she brings up the issue about what if people “don’t have the skillset” to use the technology. She proposes that certain things need to be adapted to make sure that people can experience the benefit of them, and that just a watch as an activity tracker is a good idea as it is perhaps more familiar than other pieces of technology to certain people.

Enhancing wellbeing and accessibility

This sentiment of making sure technology is accessible to everyone in order for it to be of benefit to their lives is echoed by Mark who suggests we may have become “over dependent on technology” and this is an issue if technology is too complicated for people to use. Despite this, Mark does acknowledge that technology can be useful for people when it is used in adaptive ways. He mentions how for some people a video CV maybe more easily to produce than a written CV. Such adaptations of technology can empower people in their lives and thus support their overall health. For example, Abu, who has a visual impairment, uses his adapted smartphone to access public transport timetables that enables him to travel independently.

Beyond physical health and accessibility, technology also plays surprising roles in support our overall wellbeing. A couple of Community Reporters have detailed how films help them in their lives. As George explains, film “emotionally resonate [with him] by depicting protagonist and exemplifying similar struggles that people go through in everyday life”. For George, films have helped him with issues about his identity, starting they that have “given me that insight to feel a lot better about myself”. Similarly, Stephen talks about the role that films play in allowing him to escape difficulties realities. He describes how a film can “take off the pressures of the world” and how they take his mind off things that are troubling him. Digital entertainment in both of these stories have far bigger impact on people’s lives than just being an enjoyable past time, and are instead being used to support wellbeing, particularly around mental health in the same way that people may use a walk in the countryside.

However, in some of the stories, technology was seen as perhaps being detrimental to people’s wellbeing. As a George, a young person from Manchester explains, technology is worrying because of the “content that younger people are being exposed to”, particularly in terms of the violence in video games. Also, technology can add pressure to people’s lives, particularly when using it to log details about their health and lifestyle. As Joan (one of the older people who took part in the activity-tracking project) explains, she was worried about logging her activity as she felt she would not live up to expectations. Yet although the fear of not meeting targets was initially negative, she did say that it may her more aware that she needed to do more walking despite her mobility impairments.

Key insights 

From these stories we can see the multifaceted role that technology plays in people’s lives in terms of supporting better health and wellbeing. Whilst devices and apps have key roles to play in helping people manage existing conditions, monitor health and make better lifestyle choices relating to their health, it is important not to overlook how technology can support people’s wider wellbeing in terms of a sense of identity, support positive mental health and enabling people to lead independent lives. In looking at usages and the value of technology from all of these perspectives we can better identify how it can support people in practical ways that are beneficial to them.

Many of the stories contained in this feature article were gathered as part of the Data Saves Lives project that was commissioned by the Heath Foundation and lead by the Health eResearch Centre at the University of Manchester. The project aimed to understand how people use technology to support their health and wellbeing. Working together, Macc and Inspiring Communities, Together, worked with groups of Community Reporters aged 55+ to gather their stories about using technology to support their health and wellbeing. You can a film that summarises the findings from these stories on health data here. Other contributing stories were gathered by people with disabilities who are a part of Breakthrough UK's Community Reporter group.

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