Dr Hannah Allen is the Associate Medical Director of Babylon Health, a service that provides remote consultations with health care professionals via text and video messaging on their mobile app. She currently works as a GP, and is passionate about improving the healthcare industry through innovation in new technologies, in particular, female health via “Femtech” to improve antenatal and postnatal mental health. She graduated in 2008 from the University of Warwick after initially completing a degree in BioMedical Sciences from Newcastle University.
Here she talks about life as an “online doctor”, and why she is such a vocal advocate for female health and improving women’s health via technology.
Q: What is Babylon Health and how does it operate?
A: Babylon Health started 5 years ago as a digital healthcare startup. We use technology to deliver healthcare services and connect doctors to patients, and this includes utilising artificial intelligence and machine learning to deliver patient-facing and clinician-facing services and products. We were founded in 2013, and since then the company has expanded to launch services and operations in London, Rwanda and Canada, and we currently have over 2.7 million users worldwide. During my time here, I have seen the launch of the symptom checker, which is a healthcare advice engine providing advice to patients based on the symptoms they input. We have had huge, incredible success stories from people all over the globe interacting with us, and as a clinician it makes me very proud to be working for a service that is aimed at democratising healthcare and breaking down those barriers for people where they really need it. In Rwanda, for instance, where we launched about a year and a half ago, we saw 40% of the adult population sign up and register with us which proves just how vital technology can be in saving lives and improving healthcare in more remote parts of the world and beyond.
Q: How does working as an online doctor for Babylon differ from being a GP?
A: As an online doctor, it sounds like it is going to be very different, but the reality is you still see the same types of patients. The same types of conditions and scenarios present to you as you would see as a normal GP in a traditional practice. We still have accessibility to all of the resources that you’d have as a GP. It does not hugely differ, but one difference is being able to focus on having an interaction with a patient, and not having to think about all of the peripheral, extra jobs and duties that you have to do in your traditional GP practice, such as referrals, extra paperwork and investigations. It is a very simplistic way to have consultations and interactions with patients, and it helps to eliminate all of the peripheral disturbances that can put a lot of GPs off.
In the UK currently we have got a huge GP workforce crisis, we’ve got GP’s leaving the profession, and I believe we need to be embracing technology further. It will augment the clinician’s experience on a day-to-day basis and make it an easier interaction, and relieves the stress from a lot of the peripheral tasks you have to do as a GP.
Q: You talked about Babylon health and its application in remote areas of the world, but why do you believe that some patients within this country, where we have the NHS, might be inclined to use these services?
A. There are a lot of reasons as to why. On a societal level technology has developed so that it has become feasible to carry a phone around with you. Patient’s expectations are also higher; if you know that you can order food via your phone, why can you not speak to your doctor the same way?
Additionally, society’s expectation of what happens during a GP interaction has changed. Years ago our grandparents would have thought it an absurd concept to not go and see your doctor in person or even have the doctor visit you at home. It’s a cultural change that has happened over time, and more and more people are embracing medical technology, including older people as well. They see the convenience of not having to leave their own home. For example, an elderly person who is prone to falling, patients with young children, and patients who you would not normally associate with embracing technology are also wanting to see the advantages of using technology to deliver healthcare. So it is multifaceted and it is about being able to embrace the benefits of using these services.
Q: Before working as a doctor with Babylon Health, how did you view the use of technology within medicine?
A: I had always been interested in technology and been aware of its importance and application in different industries. I was not so aware of however, its application in medicine and the potential for the future. It was when I came out of medical school and worked as a busy junior doctor when I realised there are many ways that innovation and technology can help improve lives. That was a pivotal moment for me, thinking about how we can better the lives of young women, and seeing the connectivity between helping prevent conditions like post-partum depression and improving the prognosis of women throughout pregnancy and in the postnatal period.
Q: What kinds of technology exist at present to help women?
A: We have a massive problem with maternal mortality ratios on a global scale. Within the UK, around 30% of new mothers are diagnosed with postnatal depression, and 60% of these women do not access any healthcare to deal with this, which had led to a rise in suicide and problems with postnatal mental health. Suicide is the leading direct cause of death in mothers up to the first year postpartum, which is a shocking statistic and it has an absolutely catastrophic effect on the rest of the family and the children left behind. So, I think on an individual and societal level, and within the public and private sector, we all have an obligation and a duty to be thinking of ways to improve on this for women.
I believe that technology can be used to help connect women better. I think the idea that everybody can access physical services for their healthcare problems is not a realistic scenario now, and we need to be embracing technology in order to deliver and democratise healthcare, making it accessible to people when they need it. It has to be focused on the right technology, the right healthcare services delivered to the right people when they need it.
Q: Where do you believe the future of medical technology is headed?
A. There has been a movement towards empowerment of the patient; giving patients their own data, providing them insight, and empowering them to practice healthcare. I believe passionately in empowering patients in this way. I see so many patients who present when they are unwell and by using predictive analytics, and giving them visual insights and insight to understand, they can then go on to make lifestyle choices that benefit their health in the long-term.
Q: You have mentioned the term “FemTech” in the past, could you please explain what it is, and ways in which Female Technology can be improved?
A: For me, FemTech is innovation within women’s health. It is a new phrase coined by Ida Tin from Clue (a period cycle tracker), and it is a brilliant phrase that encompasses all different kinds of technologies from trackers to wearables to predictive analytics and machine learning; essentially all the types of technologies that are looking to further women’s health and the wellbeing of women.
Frankly, in all stages of the life-cycle, technology can be implemented to facilitate and help women as they experience periods, fertility or lack of, throughout pregnancy, the postnatal period and menopause. There are many ways we can innovate and improve the health and lives of women. It need research, it needs credible data, it needs focus, funding, and most importantly it needs passionate people who care about it and can drive this movement. Recent innovations such as the hands-free silent breast pump is a great example of a way in which technology is really bettering the lives of women. Since the 1950s breast pumps have remained the same and this area of women’s health has been completely neglected for many years.
Q: How would you encourage current medical students to become involved with medical technology projects?
A: I think medical students are lucky as they can embrace their creative side at medical school, and ask questions, be inquisitive, and not accept things as they are presented to them. I believe the best way to become involved is to think of a problem you have encountered as a medical student and work out how best to solve it. Engaging with communities such as MedTech societies and wider community movements is vital, as is looking out for opportunities as they present themselves.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge you have faced within your career?
A: I want to say surviving nights on labour ward! In all seriousness, I think it is finding a balance whether its juggling work, children, keeping fit and healthy both physically and psychologically! This is hard to do and you have to be disciplined, yet allow yourself some freedom to grow and evolve as well.