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The health and care sector has been, and continues to be, strongly influenced by digital transformation driven by cutting-edge technologies. At one end of the scale is a thriving, well-funded landscape of medtech, biotech and precision medicine. At the other end, we have seen the emergence of a diversity of digital social innovation (DSI) initiatives developed by a broad range of actors, including maker communities, startup companies, non-profit organisations and experimental research projects.

DSI is being used to tackle a range of challenges, from support for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions to the optimisation of care systems in our ageing societies.

Case study: Mirrorable by Fight the Stroke

Fight the Stroke was established by two parents whose son had suffered a perinatal stroke at just 10 days old. With little support on the market, they took the solution into their own hands with the aim to use research and technology to help their child and other families. Their flagship project, Mirrorable, is a virtual reality (VR) app which stimulates mirror neurons in the brain to help children learn physical actions. This offers at-home support for patients, and children consider it more of a game than treatment. Mirrorable also has a platform for families to connect with each other, facilitate peer support and organise group sessions. The platform collects data on motor outcomes, compliance and engagement which allows for rigorous impact measurement; the team has already shown the solution to be more effective than alternative treatments.

Case study: Open Rampette

In 2015, the City of Milan passed a law requiring all bars, shops and restaurants to provide easy access to people with limited mobility or disabilities. A year later, an assessment showed that only 11 per cent of businesses were compliant. WeMake, in partnership with other organisations, began a collaborative process to design low-cost solutions to this problem. Local organisations and people, including WeMake, started a co-design process to understand what was not working and find solutions. The project developed an open-source device and app which together inform people with disabilities of which shops have mobile ramps and alert business staff to when customers need assistance. This simple technology has helped make life better for people with disabilities but also brought together different stakeholders through co-design and facilitated new ways of working within the local government.

Case study: Share4Rare

Rare diseases are classified as those which affect less than five in 10,000 people. Because of their rarity, patients and their families have to cope not just with the challenges of the diseases but also with delayed diagnosis, lack of therapies and medicine, and isolation. At the same time, with between 6,000 and 8,000 known rare diseases today, some 30 million people in Europe alone are living with them. Share4Rare (S4R), funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 programme, is a collective online platform built upon the understanding that real progress, especially in a rare disease, requires sharing: sharing of knowledge, sharing of experiences, and sharing of data. The project aims to support rare disease patients and their families by facilitating new interactions between patients, families, doctors, researchers and other stakeholders, taking advantage of digital technology’s ability to connect people all across the world. In turn, this will reduce isolation as well as facilitate research and clinical advances. The aim is that for those affected, being rare no longer means being alone.

In DSI4EU’s health and care cluster analysis, led by Italian fablab WeMake, we focus on people-centred, bottom-up digital technologies which are being used to tackle two specific challenges:

  • the lack of customisable and low-cost solutions for improving the quality of life of people with illnesses and long-term health conditions
  • the need to define procedures and technologies of data exchange and the digitisation of patient data; and the lack of resources dedicated to developing treatments for rare diseases.

In all three case studies, DSI’s values of openness, transparency, collaboration and accessibility make it a fitting solution.

We find that a range of technologies are being used to tackle these challenges:

  • 3D-printing and digital fabrication, which allow for more tailored solutions and better patient involvement, for example through bespoke mobility devices or prostheses);
  • virtual reality, which shows great promise for rehabilitation and, in particular, for offering support to children; and
  • web- and app-based platforms, which facilitate crowdsourcing of information (such as of how accessible public spaces are), citizen science (such as analysis of research data), data collection (such as real-time monitoring of activity) and long-distance communication (such as peer support for people with rare diseases).

As a fab lab, WeMake’s expertise is in the field of 3D-printing and digital fabrication, which makes up the focus for the majority of this introductory report. It explores how open innovation, co-design, peer and open production and patient-led innovation are being used to tackle some of the most pressing challenges within the health and care field.

WeMake’s analysis identifies significant opportunities in the field, including family and patient empowerment, tailored solutions, competitive advantage over existing models, products and services, and speedier responses to challenges. At the same time, numerous barriers remain, including around regulation and certification, integration into mainstream public provision, networking and collaboration, and communicating the benefits of new approaches.

Building upon these challenges, our emerging policy recommendations cover the need for support for collaboration, development of open standards, and new forms of regulation and certification. Over the coming months DSI4EU will be refining and advocating for these recommendations in collaboration with the DSI community and other stakeholders.

DSI4EU aims to support the growth and scale of digital social innovation (DSI), tech for good and civic tech in Europe through a programme of policy, research and practical support. This feature is part of a series of introductory texts exploring the landscape, challenges and opportunities for DSI in different social areas. You can find the other features in the series on our main feature page.

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