From fitness trackers that monitor our heart rate and physical activity, to smartphone apps that assess our quality of sleep or help us keep tabs on our mental health, more and more of us are using technology to store and track health data.

The existence of this type of technology is an important step towards giving consumers more control over their own health and wellbeing, and in many cases dramatically improving their quality of life.

But the health tech ecosystem is also a fragmented one, with dozens of different providers offering competing solutions, and no centralised way for consumers to manage all of their data in one place.

Richard Cooper, Head of Digital and Ecommerce at AXA PPP Healthcare, will be speaking at the Festival of Marketing 2018 on building brand trust through personalised interactions in the healthcare industry. Ahead of his appearance at the Festival, we caught up with him to talk about the state of health tech, and the challenges of building a brand that consumers will trust with their data.

richard cooper

One source of truth for health data

“Today, we all have access to the tools to self-manage our health,” says Cooper. “The days are long gone where you’re reliant on your GP as the only source of information about what might be wrong with you.

“In the past, your GP was the only person who would have held your medical details – the ‘god’ of your medical history, if you like.

“But with access to more and more wearable technology – more and more health management devices – we all have ‘pots’ of our health data in different places.”

As a consequence of this, says Cooper, we have gone from having a “single source of the truth” when it comes to health data (our GP records) to having multiple sources of the truth.

This creates a challenge for both consumers and healthcare brands such as AXA. For consumers, it means the lack of a centralised way to view and track data about their health, and the possibility that different sources of health data might contradict one another, making it difficult to know which version of the truth to put their faith in.

For healthcare brands, it prevents them from delivering a truly personalised experience to the consumer. “We can only truly find a way to build a personalised experience if we can put all of that data into one place, and more to the point, create a trusted brand that the consumer is happy to entrust all of that data to and put it into a single view,” Cooper explains.

“Take banking as an example. Most of us tend to understand the value of pulling all our financial data into one place and getting an aggregate view of our finances.

“You and I trust our bank to hold our money. We’ve probably never dug into how secure that bank is – we just trust them because they are our bank. But we know the value of that relationship and we trust them to do that job.”

As healthcare devices proliferate and become both more advanced and more widely accessible, the biggest challenge facing the health tech industry is creating the equivalent of a bank for health data: a central brand, or brands, that consumers will trust to keep their health data secure and accessible.

But can it be done?

Wearables (Image by Maurizio Pesce via Flickr, available under CC BY 2.0)

The challenges of building a trusted healthcare brand

Cooper emphasises that the biggest obstacle to creating a brand that can pull all of the disparate types of health data together is not a technological one. “Healthcare brands can easily aggregate that data into a single view of a person’s health and wellbeing.

“The challenges we have are finding a brand that the consumer will trust with that information, and helping people to understand the value of pulling it together. It might be a role for a health insurer; it might be the NHS; it might be a big digital player like Amazon.

“It almost feels like the brand that does this will need to have an independence to it, to allow all of that data to come together. But the reality is that it will also need significant funding, which I’m not sure the NHS or government will be able to put in, when there are so many other things that need the funds.

“Someone like Amazon, who has built a business around really strong data management and use of data, is probably in a good place to do it – but from a brand point of view, they’re seen as a good retailer. They’re not seen by the consumer as a health partner.”

NHS Symptom Checker app (Image by Integrated Change, available under CC BY 2.0)

Are there any brands in the healthcare industry right now that are close to fulfilling this role? Cooper responds that, in the UK, although many companies are doing a great deal of work in this area, there are none yet who have exactly the right combination of qualities to become a single source of health data for consumers.

“You’ve got some technology companies who are really good at the tech; you’ve got health companies who understand the value; and you’ve got some consumers who understand why they want it,” he says.

“But none of the circles in that Venn diagram have yet come together.”

Valuing health data

As always when it comes to personal data, there is the question of security to consider.

Cooper is confident that any brand that has the technological know-how to create a single data source will also have the means to keep the data secure. However, he says, “the challenge is much more around convincing the customer that it is secure”.

With that said, Cooper’s experience when conducting research into data security has been that people are typically much more concerned with the safety of their financial data than the safety of their health data.

“From a data protection standpoint, health data is considered more private than financial data. And yet the vast majority of people take the view of, ‘If there’s something wrong with me, I don’t care if people know about it, it makes no difference – but I wouldn’t give them my credit card details.’”

This is all part and parcel of the challenge of making people really value their health data – value it enough to want to have it all together in one place, and value it enough to keep it secure.

However, Cooper emphasises that the data also needs to be freely sharable.

“As a consumer, I want whoever holds my data to make it easy for me to share it. I don’t want them to lose it – I don’t want them to let everybody who’s got no right to see it have access to it – but equally, for this to come to life, they need to make it easy for me to share that data.

“The important thing is that it’s controlled by the consumer.”

The future of health tech: putting the consumer in control

I asked Cooper what currently makes him most excited about the future of health technology.

“It sounds a little bit cheesy,” he admits, “but I would say: consumer control of their health.

“We do a lot of work with entrepreneurs and start-ups that are solving quite difficult and quite personal health problems for people. Some of the developments we see have stopped people being tied to their house, or kept them from being regularly in hospital.

“They’re solving what are in some cases quite simple problems, and giving people that quality of life back.”

He gives the example of a fitness tracker that can monitor your heartrate, and give your physician six months of heartrate data to work with instead of just a snapshot taken in the examination room; or a device that could allow a cancer patient to carry out a blood test at home, preventing a wasted trip to the hospital if their blood count isn’t right for treatment.

Cooper stresses that health technology shouldn’t be considered a replacement for a medical professional under any circumstances. But with the right regulation and support, it can go a long way towards augmenting medical treatment.

“Technology makes your interaction with your medical professional much more powerful and useful, and puts you more in control. So we need to help people with good, evolving technology solutions get them to market more quickly.

“And in the future, once we have that central, single data source, we will need to make sure that the data is consistent and accurate between devices and doesn’t contradict itself.”

To catch Richard Cooper’s talk on personalised interactions in healthcare and dozens of other brilliant speakers, reserve your ticket for the Festival of Marketing 2018, 10-11 October.