Digital innovation: trying to do things in a new way with the use of technology

Interview with Helen Northmore by Marleen Swenne

One of the speakers at the Cardiff seminar, ‘Digital Mental Health: Increasing access and equity’, was Helen Northmore. Helen is Programme Manager, Digital Health Ecosystem Wales and her task is building a network that improves developing digital healthcare. Main goal is to bring all the parties that are involved together: industry, social care, experienced users, IT-people. I wanted to interview her about the theme of the seminar and also because I thought she knew a lot about the e-mental health users’ perspective, but that was not quite correct…

‘Before I started this job 18 months ago, I mainly worked as a project manager and had no direct connections with the care sector. But I used to work alongside people with mental health problems and saw which impact this can have on their lives. I worked next to team members who supported people to get jobs.  And because I have a chronic condition myself, I am a frequent user of services and I have a thorough experience with digital NHS applications.’


So what do you think of the willingness of possible service users to really use digital applications? In the round table discussion at the end of the seminar we talked about the perception that a lot of people, especially elder people, do not like to use digital treatment.

‘At the seminar I saw such an appetite for innovation and the use of digital technology. But what surprised me was the lack of IT-persons in attendance, especially for mental health services, because they really have to talk and think about user experiences. Also, service users are still not very prominent in the development of digital health. And explains why there is still not enough knowledge about their demands.

We talked about the perception that particularly older people do not like the use of digital applications. But I think once people understand how technology can help them do what they love, such as using Facetime to see their friends and family, or streaming their favorite music, they have crossed a line and are open for other digital innovations.

You see this anywhere, no matter where you are: some people are very enthusiastic, and others are scared for innovation. We have to bring both ends of the spectrum together, make sure that the majority of the people are enthusiastic and critically supportive. A lot of people think about digital innovation as something completely new and complex, but it is merely about trying to do things in a new way and use technology to help do that.’


In your lecture you stressed the importance of evaluation and evidence: this is necessary to really implement the already developed products. ‘Personality is too big a factor’, you said. What do you mean?

‘I think that it is not good when decisions about the development of digital health applications depend on the opinion of one or two persons. When a clinician or senior researcher is evangelic about your project, your chances of success are high, but if you come across somebody who does not want to let it happen, then it is not going to happen.

The only solution is: good evaluation, good evidence, commissioners who want to find out what’s the best. When a pilot is really well evaluated, you have to build a strong case to improve your chances. You have to be able to prove that this is the right thing and the best choice.’


What, in your opinion and from your perspective, is the first next step?

‘The evaluation and procurement are two of the biggest barriers. The challenges we have in our health care system is that we have a million pilots going on, while only a handful of pilots get rolled out. So I think what we actually need is an ‘innovation pathway’ that enables the projects that work really well in a local pilot to scale up and roll out in a larger national program. And I don’t think that pathway exists at the moment.

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