Are smart phones the gateway to global healthcare?

Claire Gillis

International CEO, WPP Health Practice

We live in the 21st century, though sometimes I wonder if we forgot to let healthcare know. In an age of significant scientific advancement, it’s disturbing that more than half of all deaths are still caused by four preventable risk factors: high blood pressure, smoking, poor glucose control and high BMI. Recent studies suggest that the enduring prevalence of lifestyle diseases has slowed down improvements in global mortality rates. The decline is avoidable. We have the science and the desire to improve outcomes, but progress is often undermined by a holistic failure to embrace innovations that are ubiquitous outside health. If we’re to advance, we must challenge a long-standing taboo around the use of health data and fight for a world in which privacy fears don’t prevent the adoption of targeted and effective health interventions. Personalised communications are a big part of the solution to health’s biggest challenges. It’s time we ushered healthcare into the millennial age.



The bigger picture isn’t pretty. Half the world lacks access to essential health services. Three thousand adolescents die of treatable diseases every day, and over 50% of deaths could be prevented by simple, affordable interventions. The fight against health inequalities should unite us all, but maybe our priorities are wrong. The world now has more mobile devices than people. Let that sink in. Everyone on the planet can have a smartphone—but only half of us can access basic healthcare.

This is our opportunity. Technology can reimagine healthcare, connecting the ecosystem in ways that optimise resources, escalate treatment and empower informed decisions. But the marriage of health and tech puts us on a collision course with a major taboo: health privacy—and we must confront the hypocrisy that clouds it. In a world driven by algorithms, we’re happy for Facebook to track us to deliver personalised content. We applaud when Netflix recommends Designated Survivor because it knows we binged on House of Cards. But when technology threatens to capture data about our personal health, we suddenly revise our privacy settings. That’s bizarre because if sharing that data can influence the management of a disease or the behaviours we adopt, its value outweighs any box set. It’s time we got that message out.


The World Economic Forum says data sharing is crucial for value-based healthcare, warning regulators that stringent privacy laws risk scuppering the opportunity. A pandemic of data breaches undermines our cause but, as a society, we must extend and amplify the debate because, when used responsibly, health data can fuel personalised interventions that maximise precious resources, increase access and transform lives. The evidence is growing on a global scale. In China, chatbots are helping patients manage hospital appointments and stimulating flow in congested secondary care. In the US, AI coaching and telemedicine are promoting weight loss and changing lifestyle behaviours in type 2 diabetics. Similarly, telehealth and remote monitoring are reducing the volume and cost of hospital readmissions for heart failure patients, freeing capacity, and improving outcomes. In the UK, a multichannel campaign is using geotargeted ads and eye-tracking data to raise awareness of retinoblastoma—a rare eye cancer that can blind children if a diagnosis is too late. And in rural India, where poor dental hygiene is a common root cause of oral cancers but there’s just one dentist for every 50,000 people, a ‘Pocket Dentist’ is providing automated professional oral care advice, on-demand via mobile phones. The intervention detects multiple dialects and can address 91% of oral health problems. Innovations such as these, along with the profusion of wearable technologies, will ultimately turn the human body into a rich platform for health data and targeted treatments. Healthcare is getting personal.

The potential for communications to minimise inequalities is limitless. Since 60% of the global disease burden is related to individual lifestyle habits, personalised interventions that nudge healthy behaviours can reduce the number of incidences, the costs and the burdens of disease. We must, therefore, challenge the taboo of health privacy and promote the value of sharing data. In a world where there are more smartphones than people, it’s time to use technology creatively and show how personal data can help eliminate global inequities and inefficiencies in healthcare.