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Futurologist Jeanette Huber Health is more than just the absence of disease

Issue 03/2017

Jeanette Huber is Associate Director of the Future Institute in Frankfurt (Germany), one of the most influential think-tanks in European trend research and futurology. life talked to her about health as a megatrend.

Bauerfeind life: From what we eat to how we exercise, and how we choose to work and spend our free time, health is a megatrend that touches virtually every area of our lives. What are the developments that can be seen in this area?
Jeanette Huber: We are seeing two major developments. First of all , health is becoming more and more individual. One person may take “healthy” to mean drinking lots of water, while another may equate it with a meat-free diet , and yet another person may believe that a vegan diet is the only option. Our understanding of health is becoming increasingly individual and more authentic. This means that everyone gets to decide for themselves what “being healthy” means to them, to a certain extent. As a result , health is more than just simply the absence of disease. Instead, people are now placing far more value on personal “health happiness” – a place where they feel good about their health. For example, there are people with chronic conditions who are nonetheless “health-happy,” because they have learned to live with and manage their symptoms, while others in the same situation may feel that they are very ill.

And the second major development?
Jeanette Huber: This is the increasing digitalization that we are seeing, coupled with a greater degree of self-determination. More and more people are collecting and managing data using health and fitness apps. This raises their awareness of their own body and provides motivation, for instance because it can also be fun to run with colleagues and then compare data.
Generally speaking, modern technology plays a huge role for people as far as their health is concerned. 52 percent1 of Germans have great confidence in the technical advancements in the field of medicine. Medical supply retailers can also benefit from this level of confidence, for instance in their use of modern measurement technology.

Practically speaking, what effect is digitalization having on the healthcare system?
Jeanette Huber: One example is that there is now a kind of mobile ECG for smartphones, which has been designed with laypeople in mind. This enables patients with heart issues to document acute health problems and thus collect their health data at exactly the right moment. The physician can then look at this data later on. This has led to a new kind of relationship developing between the physician and the patient. Most healthcare professionals find this unusual , as hierarchical top-down relationships are the norm in the healthcare sector. Digitalization is turning the healthcare sector into a network that brings people together in a world away from roles, functions, and hierarchies, in a mobile fashion and in real time. Patients, physicians, insurers, the pharmaceutical industry, and medical supply retailers – all these parties can now communicate with each other directly. This opens up new opportunities.

What opportunities and challenges do you see in the relationship between medical supply retailers and patients?
Jeanette Huber: Today’s healthcare customers look up information online. Medical retailers have to take patients seriously when they come to them with a collection of medical information they found on Google, and they have to help their customers to sort this information into correct and incorrect , important and unimportant , so that it all makes sense. This more personal and more intensive communication is a contemporary way of building customer loyalty.
The health data that many people collect themselves can also be used to achieve greater proximity to customers. However, this requires healthcare providers to keep abreast of all these health and fitness apps too and know how they work. All in all , the trend toward greater individual responsibility for one’s health opens up new potential …

Can you explain this in more detail?
Jeanette Huber: Not only are the patients of today and tomorrow more informed, with a greater commitment to tracking their health – they also have new expectations and demands. Many people do not want to just be cured – they want to live more healthily as a whole so that they can fully realize their health potential. This changes the role of healthcare providers: To put it somewhat provocatively, they are no longer just handymen who repair something when it is broken. Now, they are becoming coaches who guide their customers on the path toward a greater quality of life – perhaps by advising them on how to eat more healthily, recommending relaxation techniques such as yoga or mediation, or perhaps even by motivating them to exercise more regularly.

Being health-conscious is of course a good thing, but can it be done to excess?
Jeanette Huber: Yes, absolutely. We call these people “health optimizers.” They see their body as a construction site where there is always something to improve. They want to be healthier, more attractive, and fitter in mind and body than everyone else. And these people, especially when they are older, demand unusual skills from the healthcare professionals they come into contact with. It often falls to these professionals to try and counter their patients’ excessive demands for unattainable performance levels and help them to understand the natural limits of biology. An excessive obsession with keeping healthy needs to be counterbalanced by a healthcare culture that takes a relaxed approach to the aging process and promotes a natural path. This will then allow us to close the circle of “health happiness.”

What do you think is the most urgent task in our healthcare systems?
Jeanette Huber: Our healthcare system, with all its specializations and branches, has become completely impenetrable for a large number of people. This, along with the increase in empowered patients who are more interested in their own health, has led to calls for greater transparency. 39 percent1 of Germans want technical tools that enable them to manage and transfer their health data at any time, wherever they are.
However, there is another need that is even more pronounced: 84 percent1 of Germans think it is important for the healthcare of tomorrow to have more humanity and empathy. This is not just a huge challenge for physicians and hospitals, but also an opportunity, because it means that the healthcare professionals who make time for their customers and patients, and really listen to them and understand them, will have hit on the very best marketing tool.†

1 Philips health study, 2015

Images: Zukunftsinstitut GmbH