The best thing since sliced bread? Mobile phone technology and public health.

A curious story caught my eye in the Sunday Telegraph.

It told how High Street retailers are sending adverts and money-off coupons to the mobile phones of passers-by.  Soon, they hope to be able to track people through their shops; when they pass the sock counter or the delicatessen they’ll get more messages about the unbelievable in-store offers.  Or order coffee without spending time in the queue.

A representative of the mobile phone company, Samsung, is quoted as saying: ‘This is about using smart technology to make life more efficient and productive.’ Spoken like a true salesman.  Consumers want the best possible deal. Shops are good at delivering. All with their consent, naturally. Over and out.

It’s all too easy to condemn our High Street colleagues for what some might call ‘predatory marketing’  But the fact is that they are simply jumping where others – Government public sector organisations, charities etc – would dearly love to go in the name of better health care and patient benefit.  And who can blame them? Or should I say, us?

Yes, to be honest, if I could have wired everyone’s phone on International Clinical Trials Day (ICTD) on 20 May so that NIHR”s ‘OK to ask’ campaign appeared on screen as they walked by their local hospital or GP surgery I would have done it.  Sorry.  But the message just seems too important to leave to chance. (I do, as it happens,  get lots of recorded voicemail messages about PPI, it’s just the wrong sort!).

As a reviewer I am seeing more proposals than ever before for using mobile technology or social media to nudge the behaviour of fellow citizens this way or that.  But they all seem to be a bit, er, basic compared to the sophistication of what’s happening in the private sector.  Nor can I get rid of a nagging feeling that companies know their consumers better than we know our patients.  We could learn something from them I am sure.

In Saturday’s Daily Telegraph (where a shorter version of the mobile phone story also appeared) there was another article about M&S becoming the first retailer to add Vitamin D to bread.  This in response to the well-document explosion in the number of cases of Rickets among children, a disease thought as good as eradicated in these shores just a short time ago.

(As an aside, you could argue that there’s not a great deal of difference between unprompted messages on our mobile phones and  putting more vitamins in our food. Both are intended to be for our benefit.  Both are covered by the small print which many of us will never read.  In each case the provider can argue that the choice is ours.)

Nonetheless I tend to agree with the quoted hospital consultant – Chris Coulton – who queried the impact of the retailer’s move and said he’d rather see more attention paid to public awareness and education.

Or we could combine both, of course. In fact whose to say that one day we shouldn’t be able to open that loaf of bread from the supermarket, scan the bar code and get all the information about Vitamin D that we want, how it’s important, alternative sources and then allow us to monitor our intake with the inevitable downloadable app.

Nanny state? Perhaps.  But it’s got to be better than the sliced bread currently on offer, hasn’t it?

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