Engaging the Health of a Nation: Tackling the Fear of Finding Out

Jérôme Bouyer

General Manager at AbbVie UK

Jérôme Bouyer is the General Manager at AbbVie UK, one of the world’s leading biopharmaceutical companies. His experience spans the pharma industry and consulting with McKinsey&Company across Europe, the US and Africa. He is a member of the Board & Executive Board of the French Trade Association (Leem) and was elected President of the Scientific Affairs Commission of the Leem in November 2015.

Healthcare is on the brink of a technological revolution. Growing populations and increasing life expectancies bring fresh challenges but also new and exciting opportunities in the way we provide medical care to our citizens. Technology, Artificial Intelligence and data are transforming the way in which we ease pain, diagnose symptoms, and tackle mental health issues.

As a biopharmaceutical company, we play our part in this healthcare transformation but I believe there is a limit to the role that organisations and governments can play. In an age were technology is empowering the individual more than ever before, we should look at how that agency can enable the individual to increase their healthcare outcomes. Health and wellness must ultimately start, and end, with you.

Yet in a world of increased access to technology and health information we discovered that people still aren’t engaging with their health. In the UK we wanted find out what is stopping people approaching their health problems and ignoring worrying symptoms. To achieve this, we partnered with 2020health – a leading UK think tank to look into a number of health barriers. The findings were fascinating and revealed that the Fear of Finding Out (FOFO) is a large factor in why individuals delay or avoid visiting their doctor or seeking medical advice when they may be concerned, or not taking the relevant steps to improve their health.

FOFO is a major psychological barrier that causes people to delay seeking medical advice and sleepwalk their way into ill health later in life. It comprises many different fears, including fear of the hospital environment, fear of being told something is wrong and fear of painful treatments.

The research commission illustrated the prevalence of FOFO with the majority of people (61%) admitting they would consider delaying making a doctor’s appointment for fear of being told they have a serious condition. Meanwhile, a third (32%) of people admitted they would consider putting off making a trip to the doctor because they will be pressurised into making lifestyle changes.

This isn’t just an issue for individuals and their families. A large part of the problem is that these very personal decisions, when grouped, have big impacts on healthcare institutions in the long run. We know from research that late diagnosis places huge financial strain on the NHS and delayed cancer diagnosis costs the NHS around £150m last year. While not indicative of healthcare systems globally we can assume this is reflective of what’s going on at a global scale and that delaying decisions to seek medical help can place immense strain on governments and economies across the world.

However, simply throwing more resources at healthcare won’t bring sustainable improvements. In some countries, they spend twice as much as in the UK on healthcare but outcomes are no better. That’s why reforms are as important as resources.

We wanted to go beyond medicine to better understand what is behind FOFO and launched Live:Lab – a collaborative, preventative health initiative. It’s led by technology and designed to alleviate strain on the NHS by reaching out to people who are less likely to engage with public health information in a more compelling way to help them overcome their fear of finding out about their health.

As part of Live:Lab, in collaboration with a unique mix of tech, creative and healthcare experts, we launched a new quiz which was the first step towards helping experts understand what lies behind FOFO. ‘Crush Your FOFO’ is a series of quick-fire questions. Depending on answers given, players will be presented with their personal health fear ‘gremlin’, a representation of the severity of their FOFO, along with the chance to virtually ‘crush’ it. Users who may be hiding from their health symptoms are encouraged to visit their pharmacy or NHS Choices as first port of call for more information as well as a GP for any worrying health symptoms.

The reason for creating this game is simple: the challenges facing healthcare today are different. The world is on the verge of a huge leap forward in healthcare, driven by advances in knowledge and technology. It was clear that data would be vital in understanding the issue of FOFO. This is indicative of wider health crises and big data has the ability to solve some of the world’s most complex health challenges such as HIV. That’s why we took what learned from the ‘Crush Your FOFO’ game and made that free-to-access data with the Open Data Institute so that public and private healthcare institutions can harness it to explore and find potential solutions, and improve preventative health before it’s too late.

This is already making a difference. We now know much more about how the brain works and the impact that the broader environment has on our mental health. We know more about how our gut works and the impact food and diet can have. The advent of big data and predictive analytics means we can better plan care for a population. Advances in genomics are changing our thinking, from diagnosing and treating illness to predicting and preventing ill health. The development of precision medicine will increasingly allow a patient to be treated as an individual, not a number. An influx of new mobile and bio-devices will mean we will be able to check – and take greater control over – our health in a way never previously possible. These kinds of innovations will enable organisations to make better population and individual healthcare decisions.

All these big changes are under way. They will accelerate in the years to come.

As we begin to better understand such an innately intimate and complex subject, so we can be better placed to offer solutions, inform policy reform and ultimately improve global health. This is vital for fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews but it is also crucial for economies and their workforces: there is a positive correlation between the fear of finding out and the tendency for people to focus on their jobs at the expense of neglecting aches and pains.

This is counter-intuitive because if skilled workers put off seeking medical attention, which causes them to become seriously ill later in working life, there will be a detrimental effect to employers and the wider economy. Our research showed being in control of health was a lower priority for adults aged between 34 and 61, compared to ages either side of that range. This intersects the prime working age of most adults and so we should be finding ways to encourage these sorts of people who may be burying their heads in the sand when it comes to getting symptoms checked to do just that.

Ultimately, it’s up to those with a responsibility in the health system to empower people to engage with their health. This won’t happen overnight, but we need to make sure we’re coming up with ways to ensure people take better care of themselves and get worrying symptoms checked early. I say ‘we’ because this needs to be a collective effort. Not just businesses, not just governments and not just individuals themselves – a truly collaborative approach to healthcare is needed.