Self care week: Dr Google will see you now?

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This week (16th-22nd November) is the NHS’s Self Care Week. It is a yearly campaign to give advice about how individuals can make informed choices to take better care of their own health, with the implicit aim of relieving some of the pressures put on the NHS by unnecessary use of its services.

What exactly is self-care?

In the broadest sense, self-care is about having a lifestyle as healthy as possible, taking regular exercise and taking the right medicine when you are ill or have been diagnosed with a long term condition. This is largely to prevent unnecessary and avoidable admission to A&E, which is an extremely expensive way of delivering healthcare. Admissions could be unnecessary if, for example, a person with a long term health condition is not regularly taking their medicine in the correct way

Age differences in health information seeking behaviour

To reduce unnecessary A&E admissions or GP appointments, it is important that individuals are able to receive reliable, understandable and accessible information about their health. With the right information, people are able to make informed choices on whether they need to see a doctor. ILC-UK’s previous research found some interesting age differences in health information seeking behaviour. Over 65s in the UK are more likely than younger people to use and trust doctors (although trust remains high across the generations), whilst younger generations are more likely than older people to seek information and advice from pharmacists, online sources and medical helplines. It is unclear whether today’s young people will continue their higher levels of usage and trust in these non-traditional sources of health information, or whether they will put their trust in GPs more as they get older. What is clear however is that it is imperative that online resources, pharmacists and medical helplines give advice which is as informative as possible.

Is technology the future?

Whilst it is obviously irresponsible to recommend people simply diagnose themselves using the internet, technology is, in other ways, providing some promise in the drive to promote self-care. Take one significant reason for unnecessary admissions faced by the NHS – poor self-management of long term health conditions. Technological innovation has already been seen in personal blood glucose meters, which have transformed many people’s diabetes management by allowing them to check their blood sugar levels at home. And now, wearable technology is advancing this, with healthcare apps which can analyse blood levels or the heart rate of a user with diabetes.

One instant red flag is cost – will this promised brave new world of self-care technology not just be the preserve of the rich? There is certainly the danger of that; however one could easily argue the contrary. The open-sourced nature of many of these health apps mean that developing them has never been cheaper, whilst falls in the price of smartphones in recent years mean that they are more accessible than ever. A whole host of free smartphone apps can give advice about healthy diets and provide exercise plans which can replace – or complement – often expensive gym memberships or personal trainers.

An ageing population, alongside other developments such as the rising costs of new medical technology in hospitals and increased public expectations of what the NHS should provide, mean that it is more important than ever that the NHS’s limited resources should be spent on those who actually need it. Self-care ideally should not replace professional medical care, but compliment it.

There will always be GPs and hospitals ready to care for those who need them. But the new health universe is likely to be more fractured and place more emphasis on individuals taking responsibility for their own health. What is crucial is that good self-care is not the preserve of the rich, or the tech-savvy.

George Holley-Moore, Research and Policy Officer, ILC-UK

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