Public Health Articles

Power to the networks: the peer-to-peer future of health and care

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Nyby’s peer-to-peer network platform transforms how primary health care connections can be made without relying on inefficient centralised service models


There has never been a better time to think about how we care for one another. COVID-19 has accelerated shifts in how we work, shop, learn and communicate, but the heart of long-term changes will be connected to health and care. Lockdowns protected our physical health, it is health and care workers we have relied on and literally applauded, and problems that were festering in our care systems long before the pandemic have now been brought to the surface. Specifically, three challenges we must urgently address are: the effects of our aging populations; how we support people with chronic conditions; and the epidemic of loneliness that has been growing over recent decades.
These challenges are too often overlooked in discussions about the future of health and care, where it is more common to hear about advances in robotics, AI and which diseases are close to being cured.

Too much focus on new tech and treatments betrays a version of ‘the faster horse’ paradigm. As the (probably fictitious) quote from Henry Ford goes: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” This mindset, which views progress primarily as a better version of what we already have, misses the fact that innovations transform rather than just improve what has gone before. The car is not only a faster form of transport than the horse, it brings huge changes to our environment, the need for millions of miles of new roads, new designs for cities, a new perspective on distance etc. Likewise, innovations in health and care also mean social and cultural changes.

“Health and social care cannot and should not be exempt from gaining the benefits of peer-to-peer networks”

The tendency towards faster horse thinking is likely caused by the lag between the potential of a new technology and the new social structures that evolve in its wake. One recent instance is the advent of peer-to-peer networks. These networks have already started to transform how we relate to each other and our resources where we previously relied on centralised service models. AirBnB, Uber and Kahoot! are just a few examples of companies that have changed how we relate to travel, transport and education respectively. Health and social care cannot and should not be exempt from gaining the benefits of peer-to-peer networks, which can help us meet challenges brought by aging populations, chronic conditions and loneliness.

Yes, there are additional demands on safeguarding and privacy that any innovators in health and care must face, but there are people already stepping up to the challenge. In Norway, an organisation called Nyby is connecting thousands of nurses, carers, government administrators, charity staff and volunteers through their version of a peer-to-peer network; in this case, a resource collaboration platform that frees up time for healthcare professionals and gets more support to the most vulnerable and lonely by increasing inclusion and connecting people.

Peer-to-peer networks can be difficult to visualise. After all, ordering an Uber driver does not feel that different from ordering a taxi through a minicab company. I need a taxi, I make a request, a taxi arrives and drops me off at my destination. But a minicab company relies on a central authority to collect and manage requests. Health and care has its equivalents in centralised systems of managers and administrators, which, as Nyby is showing, is inefficient compared to a peer-to-peer approach.

Nyby was inspired by the experiences of one of its founders, Fredrik Gulowsen, whose brother required significant care before passing away in 2013. In researching how new networks could improve care systems for families like his own, Fredrik met people like Jan, a resident of a care home in Norway. Jan had recently lost much of his mobility and needed to use a wheelchair. As the two spoke about what care Jan needed, the conversation turned to what support Jan could provide to his community if given the opportunity.

It had been a long time since Jan had been asked this question, but Fredrik found out that he spoke several languages, he was tech savvy, and he used to volunteer to help children with their homework. The conversation reminded Jan just how much he had to offer and inspired the team at Nyby to build a platform that helps everyone view themselves in terms of the possibilities they have and not just the barriers they face. The platform is now being used by fifty local government areas across Norway and has recently spread to Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Now you can find Jan, along with his carers and thousands like them, both requesting and offering support directly through the decentralised Nyby network.

“A future where we see everyone for their possibilities first and their barriers second is one where empowered peer-to-peer networks transform what it means to be healthy and cared for.”

Using Nyby, nurses and carers are getting support from each other and volunteers, so they have time to do more of the things that enrich patients’ lives. A future where we see everyone for their possibilities first and their barriers second is one where empowered peer-to-peer networks transform what it means to be healthy and cared for. The robots and AI can wait a little longer; there is so much more we as people can achieve together first.

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