Asthma and London Tech Week

Kay Boycott, Asthma UK Chief Executive, on how the digital health sector will play a vital role in the future of asthma self-management.

Author: Kay Boycott - Chief Executive, Asthma UK
Date: 16 June 2017

This week is London Tech Week and Asthma UK has been talking about digital health.

How could digital health help people with asthma?

Asthma is a long-term condition that changes over time and affects people of all ages.  People with asthma are generally responsible for much of their day-to-day care, often only seeing their GP once a year for an annual asthma review. Managing the multiple triggers and day-to-day changes of asthma is extremely challenging, but getting it right has the potential to prevent two thirds of asthma deaths.

We believe technology could play a vital role in this, and have set ourselves the challenge of making asthma easy to manage through health technology. Whilst we are constantly improving the digital advice and support we offer to the 5.4 million people with asthma in the UK we can’t do it alone. That’s why we’re piloting ‘Asthma Lab’, which seeks to work with innovators to ensure their products meet the most important consumer needs.  This includes offering a free consultation with Asthma UK , where we can share our insights and expertise to help great innovation develop faster.

What have we seen so far?

After eight months and conversations with more than 60 organisations, we’ve seen a wide range of technology products for asthma beginning to emerge. Smart inhalers – which use Bluetooth to track medication usage - are perhaps the most advanced but there are many more, including inhaler technique apps, smart peak flow devices, products aiming to detect worsening symptoms and sensors that monitor environmental triggers. These products are all tackling different problems within asthma self-management, with their own business models to boot.

Good but ‘small’ ideas

In this context, a key challenge is developing products that have sufficient overall value to be adopted and paid for, by consumers or by the healthcare service. Outside the UK smart inhaler solutions have been implemented for some groups, and Asthma UK’s work as part of the myAirCoach research consortium has shown that there is appetite for more widespread adoption.   However, for digital products with more ‘niche’ application, the route to scale and commercial viability is less clear. Making the numbers stack up can be difficult, and innovators trying to make a case for funding can easily be tempted to be over-optimistic about the size of the target audience (“all people with asthma would want this”), or how deeply the need for the product is felt (“people would be willing to pay a substantial monthly subscription to solve this particular problem”). In reality, ‘small’ ideas normally struggle to stand alone.

What’s more, lots of separate ‘small’ ideas are unlikely to work best for people with asthma. Imagine having six or seven different asthma apps on your phone, each synced to a different data source or device, each doing a different job related to your asthma, and each of which you need to engage with regularly to get a complete picture. It would quite quickly become overwhelming.

We want digital products to make managing asthma simpler, not more complicated.

What’s the solution?

We believe the key to success for asthma digital health is strategic collaboration between product developers. An idea that might not get much up-take on its own could form one part of a much wider and more valuable service for people with asthma, a service worth paying for and worth promoting at scale. In the coming years, we’ll be trying to broker these collaborations to ensure that people with asthma get access to products and services that work for them.  That’s why we are always keen to hear from any innovators with great ideas and who share our passion to stop asthma attacks.

What’s in it for innovators?

And the benefit isn’t just for people with asthma. Collaboration presents the best opportunity for innovators to commercialise their ‘small’ ideas. No longer trying to market a ‘niche’ product that meets a ‘niche’ need, they’re instead a key partner in a comprehensive product or service - one that stands a real chance of being adopted (and paid for) at scale, and making a difference for people with asthma.  

Kay Boycott - Chief Executive of Asthma + Lung UK

Kay Boycott is the Chief Executive of Asthma + Lung UK. Kay moved to the charity sector in 2009 as Director of Campaigns, Policy and Communications at the housing and homelessness charity Shelter and became Chief Executive of Asthma + Lung UK in October 2013. Kay is a member of the Kings Fund General Advisory Council.