UCL Health of the Public


Spotlight on Professor Henry Potts

This month we speak to Prof Henry Potts to find out how his research on digital health is improving the health of the public.

Prof Henry Potts

Professor of Health Informatics 

Institute of Health Informatics

Henry Potts
What is your role and what does it involve?

I am a professor at the UCL Institute of Health Informatics. My role involves research on how people use technology in health contexts, and teaching on our MSc programmes. My teaching is mainly for people in healthcare jobs, who we equip to work with technology (MSc in Health Informatics) or health data (MSc in Health Data Analytics).

But this last two years, I’ve been doing something different: working with Public Health England, and others, on how we improve standards in evaluating digital health products outside of the university sector.

How are you improving the health of the public?

Digital health has great promise to deliver better healthcare at lower cost, and we have seen a huge uptake in digital health solutions over the COVID-19 pandemic. However, reality does not always live up to the rhetoric. We need to evaluate digital health products and services to make sure they are working for everyone and are cost effective. We also need formative evaluations as part of designing digital health tools to be better.

But evaluating digital health products is not straightforward. Evaluations in healthcare have a reputation for being time-consuming, which doesn’t fit the rapid development cycles of digital.

That’s why Public Health England funded a project to help the community understand the process of evaluation in a digital context. The result is a free, online resource that recently went live. Evaluating Digital Health Products is a comprehensive introduction to the space, written to be accessible to everyone – developers and commissioners, as well as researchers – in jargon-free language. It includes 30 articles on specific methods (from qualitative approaches to health economics) and two do-it-yourself workshops to help you plan an evaluation. Much of the content was written by myself and colleagues at UCL (Dr Paulina Bondaronek, Dr Manuel Gomes). Further information describing how a user-centred design approach was used in the development of the resource can be found in this recently published paper.

I’ve also been involved in a series of webinars with DigitalHealth.London under the #EvaluateDigiHealth banner, talking about issues in the field.

What do you find most interesting or enjoyable about your work?

The people: working with my colleagues and students. The pandemic has been a difficult time for all of us. Working together – even if only on videocalls – has been the best part.

How have cross-disciplinary collaborations shaped your research?

Health informatics is inherently cross-disciplinary. I trained as a health psychologist, re-trained as a statistician, and work with clinicians and computer scientists all the time.

What we learnt with Evaluating Digital Health Products is that many people involved in developing digital health know about the evaluation methods used in their discipline. Digital developers are familiar with think alouds and A/B testing. Healthcare workers and researchers know about randomised controlled trials and audits. But people don’t know much about the methods used by the other side. You need to understand both sides to deliver pragmatic and effective research.

What advice would you offer to others interested in developing cross-disciplinary research?

Try and become “bilingual” in different disciplines. People in different disciplines make different assumptions, have different underlying models of the world, and can even mean different things by the same words (compare “implementation” for a computer scientist and someone in healthcare). Be aware of the differences or even just that there may be differences. Take time to get to know another discipline.

What's next on the research horizon for you?

While I continue to work on digital health, COVID-19 now dominates my research. I’m part of the CORSAIR project. We work to analyse behavioural data for the Government and SAGE. The pandemic isn’t over and now we’re out of lockdowns, it is more important than ever to understand what people are doing, or not doing, that will affect the spread of the virus.

If you could make one change in the world today, what would it be?

Better job security and pay for early career researchers. The pandemic has only reminded us again of too-often precarious funding situations for many university staff.