The scoping question proposed by the ESRC for the health and wellbeing domain was, “Does technology makes us healthier, better educated and more productive?

When put to experts as part of our initial Delphi survey, responses often suggested that many of the negative impacts of digital technology on health and wellbeing were more usually generated in other domain areas – an example being the economy and sustainability domain, where the dual effects of automation and globalisation have brought about feelings of insecurity and anxiety, which can often lead to chronic health problems. However, experts also saw technological developments as key in combatting global health challenges such as chronic illness and ageing populations. Learning to use the potential of health technologies and minimising any negative impacts becomes particularly significant when set against global ageing challenges. However, the benefits and any drawbacks from the introduction of, for example, telehealth are not yet clear. As one expert put it, “There’s a difference between whether it does and whether it can and/or could”. (This ESRC event on Older People’s Health and Wellbeing is exploring precisely this type of issue.)

Health and wellbeing is determined by a complex mix of factors including income, housing, employment, education, lifestyle, and access to health care and other services, which results in significant inequalities between individuals and different groups in society. Experts suggest that digital tools and services might be usefully added to this list and/or that digital health inequalities should be investigated in their own right.

Off-setting the need for specificity, experts also raised the requirement for more understanding of the broader consequences of the intensification of technology in our lives (e.g. the quantified self, access to information, health monitoring, remote working practices and syndromes such as digital burnout). An approach is the work being undertaken in developing open source software for practitioners to develop specific wellbeing interventions in terms of behaviour change – an example being the EPSRC project ubehave. The uncertainty about how best to use digital technology in healthcare provision is also felt in the commercial sector, with industry needing more research and policy guidelines for developing technology that can be mainstreamed into healthcare services.

There is an overall concern that the ongoing technological innovation in healthcare requires attention to be paid to how new technologies are embedded in care and a better understanding of how digitally supported and digitally provided care compares with traditional forms of care given by humans. Concerns raised by experts also extend into patient confidentiality. As one expert put it, “How can we ensure the privacy and security of health data?

There is great potential for digital technology to support programmes of wellbeing and healthcare. The capturing and sharing of dynamic health data across networks has the potential to enable better, joined up services; whilst in the context of increased demand for healthcare, digitised health products hold out the promise of doing more for less.  However, as yet there is little evidence about how digital technologies actually support healthcare and little is known about the benefits of self-monitoring and whether there could be variation in the way that people interpret that data.  Another under-researched area is thought to be around anecdotal perceptions of the harm that digital technologies have on wellbeing and how these might be addressed.  Comments also emphasised that specific aspects around learning and education need attention, such as the cognitive effects of multitasking, the effects of digital technologies on reading, and on child development inequalities.

It was also proposed that our ESRC question might be better phrased as, “How is digital technology associated with health, education and productivity?” to ensure we capture both positive and negative aspects.