I heard interesting article on Radio 4 while driving in to work on Monday.

As men’s health improves, and they live longer – and, presumably, as women put up with them less and divorce them – the number of single elderly men is rising. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they are lonely and depressed with this state of affairs and this affects their health.

I immediately thought of “men in sheds”. I believe this is a local scheme – although it might be national – that encourages a certain type of man to meet up and share interests.

Some people just don’t get IT

This whole topic resonated with me for two reasons. First, I recently read a book called ‘A Man Called Ove’, which is about an old man who is a bit of a curmudgeon, and which is well worth reading.

And second, my dad is a widower with a small social circle who lives quite a way from me.

Now, he’s an ex reader from a prestigious university and very IT literate, having taught electrical engineering and electronics. He’s never happier than messing on a computer, so using Skype isn’t a problem for him.

But what would have happened if it was the other way round? My mum, as lovely as she was, was hopeless with IT.

Perhaps she never needed to be any good; but what if my surviving parent was in this position, and I needed to support them?

Mum could work a VHS video. She used to put a tape in, rewind it, check the channel, and press ‘record’. Sky Plus might have been her dream or her nightmare – I’ll never know.

Could she use Skype? Ok, could I put an old iMac in her lounge and remotely look after it, keeping it up to date? I know people who do this.

But I already feel like an IT technician at work and at home. I spent two hours getting my wife’s iPhones to work last week.

Some TVs now have Skype built into them, which might be another way forward. However, I can see me ringing to talk her through how to use it.

Perhaps the big companies would say “this is why we are working on voice interaction” – but even the terminology of files folders etc would confuse her.

The very latest, very complicated tech

I remember watching the original version of ‘Total Recall’. In the film, the characters had cool videophones that just seemed to work like normal phones.

I remember going to a conference and seeing Cisco had something similar for VoIP networks. Where are the phones that do that over home lines? As we all get ready for the tenth series of ‘The Apprentice’ it makes you wonder if maybe Amstrad was on the right lines with its video phones?

I watched the Apple launch of its latest phones and software on the iPhone and was particularly interested in the HealthKit stuff.

HealthKit is a personal health store that people can use to store information from HealthKit-enabled devices and share it with others. Emis has already created a personal health record using HealthKit that can be accessed from Emis Web.

As I’ve said in other articles, the trick, for me, will be whether you can share your data with your doctor without bombarding them. I dread people coming in with 50 different apps – all presenting the data in different ways – wanting to know why their pulse rate at 8:14am was 74 not 63.

At the same time, while I’m all for patient empowerment, it does seem that the main users of this tech are white, middle class, IT literate, fitness obsessed, nerds.  

Is my 85 year old patient really going to be able to afford such a device just to measure how often she gets out of the chair? Is she going to use Snapchat?

A few years ago, most health service managers used to say that their biggest goal was to reduce health inequalities. Now everyone talks about balancing the books.

Yes, IT might help us do that; but I suspect it will drive up unwarranted demand as well – and maybe divert us from the needy.

Making IT simpler

Ok, one of the advantages of an iPhone or smartphone is that the computer is there; the SDK, the sensors. You don’t need to design a new computer every time.

You can use it as your interface. I’m a photography nut and the latest thing is controlling your camera from the iPad. Live view and full ability to adjust or add features. Want to do time lapse – camera doesn’t support it – easy in an app. And so on.  

Perhaps what Apple or Android need to create is not just a SDK but a hardware development kit (some might say that this is what a Raspberry Pi is – but is it good enough?)

Every time a device comes out, it has a faster and faster processor (it makes me wonder: what do they do with the old slower ones?)

But why can’t they produce a kit that others can just plug into their devices – that allows just one or two apps to carry on working, using the interface that people are familiar with?

Behind the scenes, it could have all the auto updating; even a full interface that experts can remote onto. But make it simple and make it cheap. Make it communicate.

We don’t need a clip-on iPod. We need a clip-on movement senor, including a fall sensor, linked to email or a healthcare Facebook. Reporting every day.

Or perhaps we do need an iPad, but one that just turns on Skype with fast dial buttons for the son, daughter and grandkids.

One way or another, it occurs to me that in our rush for a ‘do everything’ device are we missing the ‘do one thing well’ device. Particularly for people who only want – can only cope with – a device that does one thing at a time. Perhaps a Kindle is an example?

Don’t panic: just press here  

The other day a patient came in to see me, having had a fall at home. They had a necklace on it with a call button. It’s a huge red button. On the floor, in their flat, all they had to do was press it. That’s all.

Ok, my patient had a complicated system. They had speakers in rooms. A control centre came on and tried speaking to them. When that didn’t work, the call centre rang an ambulance.  

A big red button that calls an ambulance when you need one is great tech. Would a smartphone have done as well?

Dr Neil Paul

Dr Neil Paul is a full time partner at Sandbach GPs; a large (22,000 patient) practice in semi-rural Cheshire. He is also one of the directors of 4GPs Ltd. Dr Paul has been involved in primary care IT and health service management for more than ten years in various roles, including PEC member and urgent care lead. In his spare time, he writes medical iPhone software and is a keen photographer.