Digital innovations

Digital innovations such as apps can improve care – but apply them wisely


What are digital innovations?

Digital innovations are not just flashy health apps or expensive, complicated equipment. They can be as simple as downloadable patient information sheets or an online CPD system. A digital innovation is often just a digital way of doing things differently. It is something that should complement a physiotherapist’s practice, not replace it. The best digital technology is developed with input from clinicians and is designed to solve specific challenges in daily practice.

In the healthcare sector, there have been many digital innovations. It's key that we ensure these new tools benefit the patient and meet appropriate standards. Did you know there are well over 327,000 different health apps available? Of these, 43 account for 83% of all health app downloads.

Unfortunately, many of these apps are ineffective and outdated. As a result, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has published an Evidence Standards Framework for Digital Healthcare Technologies. This lays out how an evidence-based system centring on the user should be developed and implemented.

We need to make sure all new innovations are created with the patient in mind and follow evidence-based practice.

Why are digital innovations important?

Digital technology has many advantages for practitioners and patients, so we need to be supportive – but discerning as well.

The NHS Long Term Plan highlights the opportunity that enhanced digitalised services will provide.

Improved data flow can help us to collect information that can show the effectiveness of physiotherapy interventions and to examine trends that could lead to service improvement.

The NHS will be moving to a ‘digital first’ option to enable increased care from home. The aim will be to help people stay well and manage their own health, guided by digital tools. Digital innovations will be key in unlocking huge potential savings in resources. It will also free up staff to support the patients who need the most care.

Chapter five of the NHS Long Term Plan discusses all things digital.

Challenges to digital innovations

A recent report highlighted the following barriers to effective mobile working in patients’ homes:

  • Poor connectivity when in a patient’s home.
  • Inability to access GPs' electronic records.
  • Uploading onto systems that do not talk to each other, leading to duplicated data entry.
  • Limited or no training on how to use devices.
  • Mobile devices not being compatible with other software.

But as technology and infrastructure advance, today’s challenge can become tomorrow’s opportunity.

Myths about digital innovations

It is often assumed that older people do not use the internet much. This may limit their participation in online digital innovations. However, statistics show that almost half of all adults aged 75 years are recent internet users.

Furthermore, internet use in the 65-74 years age group now stands at 83 per cent, closing the gap on younger age groups.

This is a reminder that when exploring the scope for innovations, we need to challenge historical assumptions.

Innovations can often be disseminated quickly, but without rigorous testing they may pose a risk to patients. Occasionally, more effective innovations, which could secure better results, are not given due consideration. There are several reasons for this:

  • They may not be as glamorous as other proposed innovations and do not generate the same excitement.
  • Creating innovation is not necessarily the difficult part – problems often arise in securing the funding for the adoption and spread of the innovation (for example, Professor Mike Hurley with the ECSCAPE-pain programme).

According to a recent King’s Fund report, there is significant spending in the NHS on research and development but less investment in supporting and spreading innovations.

This can lead to a delay in new innovations being rolled out and must be considered as we move forward.

Look in your next Frontline magazine, which is always packed with the latest innovations in physiotherapy.

What should I do next?

  • Read the NICE Evidence Standards Framework for Digital Healthcare Technologies to make sure that we as a profession are ensuring the best standards are followed when creating digital innovations.
  • Engage with others – the role of digital AHP lead has been established in the NHS and is now in place in many trusts. Find out who this is for your trust and start a conversation about how to engage with digital solutions.
  • Read chapter five of the NHS Long Term Plan to find out more about digital solutions going mainstream across the NHS.


    Collins B (2018) Adoption and Spread of Innovation in the NHS. King’s Fund.

    Dixon-Woods M et al (2011) Problems and promises of innovation: why healthcare needs to rethink its love/hate relationship with the new. BMJ Quality and Safety. 20, 1.

    Further information

    Babylon – app provider.

    ESCAPE-pain app.

    NHS England Innovation portal.

    NHS England (2015) Innovation into Action. Supporting Delivery of the NHS Five Year Forward View.

    Nolte E (2018) How Do We Ensure that Innovation in Health Service Delivery and Organization is Implemented, Sustained and Spread? WHO Regional Office for Europe.

    van Houten H (2019) Five Ways In Which Healthcare Innovation Has Changed Over the Past 15 Years. Philips.

    Young T (2017) Can innovation help us deliver an NHS for the 21st? British Journal of General Practice. 67, 657, 152-153.



    • Joe Head
    • Ethan Chapman
    • Cabella Lowe
    • Chris Tarn

    Edited by Daniel Allen

    Last reviewed: