'Digital Wellbeing': The $2Trillion Market Combining Digital Tech & Mental Health Care

Katie Brown, Founder & Director, Connected WellbeingKatie Brown is the founder and Director of consulting boutique Connected Wellbeing. It’s tempting to describe it as ‘niche’ but for reasons that will become apparent, that’s something of a misnomer. During the course of our interview, I learned that digital wellbeing - this is the generally accepted term for the world in which Katie works - is a global market said to be worth around $2trillion[1]. I was a surprised. That’s $2trillion for something that a great many of us would probably have trouble defining. It seemed like a very good reason to find out more.

Most good ideas are either very simple, or they bring together a number of pre-established component parts to do something new and different. Conceptually, Katie’s work at Connected Wellbeing is probably the former, though to be fair it requires some pretty specialist know-how to execute. It’s definitely the latter. To be specific, this is about taking the emerging field of digital technology, combining it with mental health and wellbeing principles and harnessing the growing trend of patient empowerment to deliver truly innovative healthcare services.

I asked Katie how she got started. It began, she told me, some 7 years ago (the dawn of time as far as this kind of thing goes) when she worked for a leading UK mental health charity. She became interested in different ways of engaging with patients and service users, so began to explore what else was taking place around the world, particularly in the US and Canada. Though faced with much scepticism at the time, she became a key influencer amongst local decision-makers in mental health and service commissioning. Two years ago she shifted her position and established Connected Wellbeing as a route to providing expert advice to those at the forefront of service design and provision.

The North American/Canadian picture offered much food for thought. Though imperfect, the healthcare models there have created a very different attitude to healthcare, compared to what happens in the UK. Where the all-embracing NHS has traditionally encouraged a kind of passivity when it comes to personal health, the concept of choice and ownership is far more embedded across the pond. More recently, in the face of a changing funding landscape and improved access to information, the UK is catching up, with much greater ‘health literacy’ prevalent amongst patients. For Katie, this is a critical ingredient in the emergence of digital wellbeing.

At the heart of it all is the very nature and characteristics of mental health and wider angle of wellbeing. Katie explained that unlike, say, the emergency patch-up of a broken bone, this area of healthcare requires a great deal of on-going self-management and self-reflection which is what makes it supremely appropriate for the application of digital technology.

When I looked quizzical, she spelled it out and the penny dropped. Digital technology, she said, creates a footprint. It’s a track record and history that would otherwise be destroyed or distorted by memory.

Like a diary? Well, yes, apparently so. The big difference is that information that’s digitally recorded is highly portable and this, it seems, is crucial. It enables a true upward feed of information into the providers of healthcare services and enables a genuine dialogue around the whole issue of an individual’s on-going healthcare provision.

In terms of application, Katie pointed me towards the high levels of mental illness and depression amongst young men, who at the same time are those traditionally less likely to seek help.

She explained that when the Samaritans implemented one of the most commonplace digital technologies – email – there was a noticeable increase in the numbers of people accessing services.[2]

With young men likely to be digitally literate, it’s easy to see why innovations in this area could transform service provision for these service users.

Katie sees mental health as essentially a subset of the wider field of well-being or life management, which is something that impacts us all. The time is right, she feels, because the market is now beginning to catch up.

Social media has helped enormously, bringing a conceptual understanding of personal chronicling and digital footprints to literally billions of people.

Where once her ideas were met with knitted brows or glazed eyes, there is now much greater understanding and even discussion in healthcare circles about a kind of ‘well-being Twitter’ where people are linked together through their real-time experiences of wellbeing.

So, new it may be but niche it’s not. Not when all the component parts are part of our everyday lives and nearly everyone has at least a basic grasp of ‘app’ technology – a likely core method of delivery. Here’s the thing though: whilst the concepts are out there, the knowledge gap is in understanding the business models that will enable them to not only thrive but also to proactively power the changes that are already starting to take place. This is where Katie positions Connected Wellbeing. Her clients are the current commissioners of service who need her particular blend of skills and knowledge, developed at a time when for most of us digital technology meant sending email and browsing the web. For them she delivers clarity and understanding over how this mix of ideas can be brought together to deliver a service that is cost-effective, transforming and sustainable.[3]

For more about Katie’s work, visit http://connectedwellbeing.wordpress.com

[3] http://www.ted.com/talks/rebecca_onie_what_if_our_healthcare_system_kept_us_healthy.html

Hatty Richmond’s professional background is in management consultancy, specialising in organisational development and design. She has a particular interest in the role of leadership in determining culture and the resulting impact on performance.

Alongside her consulting work, Hatty writes both fiction and non-fiction including articles, profiles and short stories – the latter mainly for fun. Her novel, On the Outside, is based on a true story and is due for completion in early 2013.

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