The ability to analyze big data so possible links can be identified between health status and specific urban environments could help towards prevention and early intervention of numerous chronic conditions whilst improving efficiencies within future healthcare provision.
The UK’s National Health Service faces an increasingly tough funding challenge over the next 15 years.
A report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Health Foundation in May 2018 found that health spending will need to rise from 7.3% to 8.9% of national income to generate an extra £95bn by 2033-34, simply to keep healthcare standards the same.
Smart use of data from the environment around us can encourage a preventative and proactive approach to improving the health of citizens and enables action to be taken across numerous ecosystems.
There is growing evidence of a relationship between certain environments and the development of chronic respiratory conditions. Multiple studies have shown a link between exposure to vehicular traffic increases and the prevalence of respiratory symptoms – including the potential exacerbation of pre-existing asthma in children.
Air pollution was responsible for 6.1 million deaths worldwide in 2016, according to the Health Effects Institute, which concluded that more than 95 per cent of the world’s population continues to breathe dangerously-polluted air.
Air quality and the proximity of roads to accommodation will become an increasingly important issue for city planners as they attempt to accommodate increasing volumes of traffic on the roads, as well as a sharp spike in the number of people who live in cities in the coming years.
Over the next 30 years, the percentage of the world’s population that lives in urban environments is projected to rise from just over 50% today to 70%, with various estimates suggesting at least 5.5 billion people could be living in cities by 2050.
Even in the countryside, farming communities are disproportionately affected by chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is thought to be linked to the use of fertilizers.
Moreover, other health conditions have also been linked with living in certain areas.
For example, a well-publicized study carried out in Canada and published last year in The Lancet found that people who lived within 50 meters of a busy road were 7% more likely to develop dementia than people who live at least 300 meters away.
Spotting the links is only part of the challenge, though, with follow-up research required to identify the specific elements that cause such issues, as well as the relative impacts.
So, the onus is on researchers to be able to crunch huge amounts of data to identify trends, but then also on policy-makers to act on the data and implement changes that can benefit people’s lives.
However, the volume of data required to support key planning decisions by local health trusts, as well as city and regional authorities, is enormous.
As an example, the Canadian study noted above featured the collection of data from 6.8 million people over a 12-year period. In another 12 years, resources in densely-populated cities could already be at breaking point.
Therefore, the timeframe needs to be squeezed, with data collected, categorized and analyzed at a far quicker speed than before.
Looking ahead, connected devices that provide data patterns to help establish a model of health impacts will be crucial for healthcare services in rural and cosmopolitan locations - especially with a likely shift towards more preventative measures.
Regulations could also be updated by smart cities that have collected and categorized extreme levels of data, from planning for new housing developments to attempting to ease traffic congestion for local health services.
Just days ago, for example, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, called on companies to allow flexible working so that their employes can avoid rush hours, thereby easing congestion in the city.
For health professionals, this approach would be welcomed, as traffic congestion has the potential to have a significant impact on how quickly a patient receives quality treatment.
A 2013 report found that ambulance transport times were longer during daylight and rush hours and shorter when the journeys were taking place at night, with fewer cars on the road.
Momentum is building towards smart city living, but the quality of life – and health – will have to rise at the same time as the state-of-the-art apartment developments.
Otherwise, healthcare and other vital services could crack under the strain, leaving some urban environments as ghost towns in the years to come.
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Institute for Fiscal Studies report: https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/12998
Vehicles and respiratory issues: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19534827
Health Effects Institute study: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/air-pollution-quality-cities-health-effects-institute-environment-poverty-who-a8308856.html
Farming links to COPD: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22216804
Busy roads and dementia link: https://www.nhs.uk/news/neurology/people-who-live-near-busy-roads-have-higher-dementia-rates/
Andy Burnham calls for flexible working: https://www.itv.com/news/granada/2018-10-26/burnham-calls-for-government-action-amid-traffic-chaos/
Ambulance arrival time study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4288957/