Oliver Smith is strategy director and part of the health moonshot at Telefónica Innovation Alpha. A keynote speaker at this year’s Data Summit in Edinburgh, he explained to David Reed what the project is aiming to achieve and why he made the move from healthcare and philanthropy into innovation and the “moonshot factory” working on a personal healthcare assistant.
First of all, can you tell our readers about Alpha - its vision, mission and scope?
Of course. Alpha is Europe’s first “moonshot factory”. That means we’re an innovation facility that tries to solve big societal problems by using breakthrough research and technology. We were created by Telefónica in 2016 and I lead on strategy for our health moonshot.
A health moonshot sounds like you have in view a goal that is hard to achieve - what is it and how are you approaching it?
Yes. Moonshots are big, audacious projects. They’re long-term bets where we believe we can solve a problem to affect positively the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
For Alpha Health, our goal is simple. There are currently millions of people in the world living with chronic disease. Whether it’s heart disease, diabetes or mental health difficulties, these chronic diseases are now the leading cause of death globally.
At Alpha Health we know that the biggest contributor to these diseases is human behaviour. Things like eating too much salty or sugary food, sleeping poorly, or smoking.
So, our goal is to combine cutting-edge cognitive science, trustworthy technology and compelling design to create a personal health assistant that helps people to change their behaviour so that they are healthier and happier. This will radically reduce the burden of chronic disease globally.
Health is a social issue and also a major area of public funding and commercial investment. How do you involve such a wide range of stakeholders in the project?
Our focus on improving health and happiness through behaviour change helps to prioritise who we work with. In general, we have three types of partnerships. The first are the research projects that we undertake with leading universities and hospitals across the UK, US, and Spain.
The second type of partnerships are oriented towards creating and testing commercial prototypes. Here we work with other technology companies, as well as other parts of the Telefónica group.
Finally, we are putting even greater emphasis on working with NGOs and organisations that are focused on the broader social issues that our efforts sit within, not least questions that relate to data, trust, and ethics.
Once we have identified an area to work on, we then seek out the best minds within the best organisations. Take some of our work on body image. We wanted to test an approach to help people suffering from body dysmorphic disorder - when someone is obsessed over an aspect of their body they perceive as flawed. We could have tried to tackle this ourselves. But we take an open collaborative approach and want to bring the best minds together. So we worked directly with the Chief of Psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, someone who had extensive experience in this specific area.
I genuinely think that’s the only way you can make meaningful progress against such a big goal. Stay focused and work with the best minds you can.
The UK has a very different model for healthcare than most other countries (where it is insurance-driven). How does this influence your project?
If you want to have a global impact, you have to build a strong understanding and experience of the global market. That means we have to build out our expertise and engagement across the full range of global healthcare environments.
Just in our own team, we have people that have worked for the NHS, for major US hospitals and the Abu Dhabi Health Service. Our scope is further expanded by our partnerships - we are already working closely with organisations in Spain, the UK and the US, and in discussion with organisations in Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, Brazil, and Chile.
Clearly, when it comes to things like data and specific domestic regulations, you need to be working with the very best people on the ground in those markets to make sure you’re engaging properly. But, ultimately, we believe it’s the breadth of knowledge and experience we bring together at Alpha that holds the key to making significant progress towards our goal.
What is the role of data and analytics in Alpha?
To put it simply, all of our work starts and ends with data and analytics. Whether it’s assessing market size and fit at the beginning of a project, or fine-tuning a product through measurement and evaluation.
We take the view that if you’re bringing the brightest minds together, they need to be supported with the strongest evidence base and data possible. For us, this is more than just having a dedicated data or analytics team. We need all of us at Alpha to be incredibly comfortable engaging with data and what it’s telling us, and then layer that in with other factors and experience to decide our next move.
I actually think, or hope, this question will become obsolete in the near future in the health field. To my mind, if you’re not engaging with data and analytics in the healthcare field at the moment, then you’re not going to maximise the health benefit that you can provide to people.
What is your view of how individuals will access and/or control their personal healthcare and patient records in the near future?
I hope that this is something we’ll all come to view as a standard part of how a health system should work. However, I believe that the real benefits for patients lie not just in them having access to their own data, but that data being presented in a more meaningful way, in the context of what is important to them as individuals.
For this to become a reality, institutions are going to need permission to analyse and share data at scale so they can build reliable models and predictions. And they will only get that permission if they are trusted. Getting trust right holds the key.
Fundamentally, it is patient fears over data sharing that could hold health services back significantly from delivering smarter, better and safer services. It is too easy to dismiss these fears as a form of digital nimbyism which can be overcome by appeals to some, often nebulously described greater good. However, I believe that this is the wrong approach. We must listen carefully and address rather than seek to circumvent these legitimate concerns.
It is for this reason that Alpha Health is paying so much attention to creating trustworthy technology, with an emphasis on explainability and preserving privacy. If we can get this right, I believe people can fully benefit from the information that their records hold, presented in a personalised way that supports them to make the choices they want to improve their health and happiness
What drew you to this role and project?
I joined Alpha in 2016 having spent a decade or more working in health, first in the UK Department of Health and then as a philanthropic investor for Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity. In that time, I became more and more excited by the potential that technology holds to improve health, but also increasingly frustrated with the pace of change.
As a strategist, you always dream of working on programmes with global ambition, patient, multi-year funding, and access to the best talent across sectors. Therefore, working for Alpha is essentially my dream job! I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be working at the cutting edge of health, alongside people who are at the top of their game.