Thursday 11 September 2014

Apple's foray into timepieces

The last decade is often seen as a time of gadgets. The doubling of computer memory every decade has led to a proliferation of high tech products in all aspects of modern life, be it in the kitchen or the fitness studio. There is one old style gadget however that so far has benefitted little from technology's march into the future. Wrist watches have been in terminal decline since computers entered our lives.

I cant remember when I last saw a person with one of those ostentatious marks of wealth slung around their wrist, although airport lounges seem to be populated with 'watch hut' shops more than ever. Perhaps, the ubiquity of those shops in airports is an inverse measure of the popularity of the product they offer. Paradoxically, it was the computer and its increased memory capacity that sounded the death knell for the wrist watch. As memory bearing chips became smaller, mobile phones took on all sorts of functions in our lives, and made watches largely redundant. That is, the watch that is simply a watch.

Multifunction watches have proliferated on the high tech consumer market but those watches are rarely for 'knowing the time'. The market stability that came with people's need to know the time on the go disappeared of course as watches changed their role. Whilst there was always a fashion element to wearing watches, now there is little else, except perhaps the occasional heart rate monitoring function. Loading watches with peripheral functions to 'telling the time' is however a fickle thing in consumer markets and tagging a product on something as fast moving as fashion or fitness crazes does not appear to me to be a reliable business strategy.

Apple, however, disagree and have just announced that they will launch a wrist watch that can do all sorts of things, above and beyond displaying the time. The question is whether or not this will capture people's imagination. There is no doubt that the fans of all things Apple (and I profess to be one of them) will constitute a sizeable pool of excited potential buyers for this watch. However, I am not quite certain that this will be enough to convince the wider public to fork out about $399 for something to be worn around their wrist for something that they essentially already carry in their pocket, their mobile phone.

Time to check out the Apple website? Apple's new wrist watch

What's complicating the picture is that Apple seems to think that, to boost its sell-factor, the watch should offer all sorts of functions for people who appear to spend most of their days running, swimming or sweating on a treadmill in a gym. This may well turn out to be a miscalculation. It may make for sexy adverts to have twenty-somethings run around in leafy suburbs in tight lycra but last time I checked, less than 3% of the population spend more than 2 hours per week working out.

But the main test for any gadget, as the BBC technology Rory Cellan-Jones correspondent wrote recently, is whether or not you would turn around if you had forgotten the thing at home. Whilst I just may do that for my mobile phone (bless the days though where I had the strength NOT to), I certainly wouldn't do that for a wrist watch. After all, if really in doubt about the time, if I listen carefully, I can still hear the churches announcing every quarter hour from the clock towers. Can you?

Saturday 6 September 2014

Scotland and the devolution trap

As the No Campaign scrambles to counter the late surge in support for Scottish independence, Westminster politicians appear to throw a last trump: constitutional reform. For anyone who observed the dithering of UK politicians on this issue for the last decade, this late constitutional twist is ironic to say the least.

For a start, there is the consistent inability (or unwillingness) of Westminster to conduct a radical overhaul of the British constitution. Labour embarked on devolution with great fanfare, only to shelve plans for parliamentary and tax distribution reforms (i.e. the infamous Barnett formula). After 2010, the coalition government strafed the issue with ignorance right from the start.

The paradoxical result of this is that Britain, for all intents and purposes, is a federal country without the necessary institutions. It remains suspended in a constitutional limbo, where Westminster keeps operating as if this was a centralised state, whereas devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast are allowed to keep their grudges against 'imposition from London'.

In a way, the Scottish referendum is the child of devolution, and it may just be the reason for devolution's inglorious end. On one hand, devolution allowed parliaments and governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff to be the training ground for potential independence, boosting the confidence and competences of their politicians. On the other hand, however, devolution is still too fresh to even blip on the radar of many Scottish or Welsh voters to recognise that the assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff already have powers at their disposal to freely decide on health, education or housing.

Devolution thus is too young and too advanced at the same time. Timely radical constitutional reforms could have strengthened the hand of the opponents of independence, but now, all that's left to them is to clobber together a package that may just sway sufficient votes against an independent Scotland. There can only be one lesson: delaying constitutional reforms leads to freewheeling thinking of headless chickens. Lets hope for the best.

Are you satisfied with your doctor?

On a regular basis I receive a letter from the NHS. It's a survey which asks me to complete several questions about how satisfied I am with my GP. Invariably, the letter goes straight to the bin. And here is why.

The NHS have conducted patient satisfaction surveys for several years now (done by CQC) and they are beloved by politicians of all colour. Whenever the discussion turns to productivity or care outcomes in the NHS,  politicians are quick to point out that patient satisfaction is at an all time high in the NHS (it currently is about 96%). Somehow patient satisfaction rates are meant to counter any criticism of the NHS. I believe this is a spurious argument and one that does not stand up to scrutiny.

There are clearly some things surveys can find out. They fall into the category of 'facts' such as how many times somebody has visited their doctor recently and the like. Although patient surveys are actually not the best way to establish good data on these things, I can see that you may want to ask them in a survey with some justification. I still think responses to these questions should still be treated with caution given that we are all human beings and our memories play tricks on us with even more mundane issues such as remembering whether it was raining yesterday or where we put our car keys.

Be that as it may, the real problems emerge when it comes to the responses these surveys are really after: patient satisfaction. A typical question of this sort runs like this (this is an actual question from the regular GP survey I receive): 'How would you describe your experience of your GP surgery'? 'Very good, fairly good, neither good nor poor, fairly poor or very poor.

Well, let me think about this... First of all, I am not sure what this question refers to. Do they ask me to rate the pictures hung up on the surgery walls? Or are they after my opinion about the doctor's willingness to give me the drugs I want?

Yet, it is not only the fuzziness of the question that makes this survey an exercise in futility. More importantly, how would I know what is a 'fair, good or poor' experience? I tend not to visit my GP and then pop to another one down the road to see if she is any better. The nature of the healthcare experience is that it is rarely comparable. I have not heard of a single person who had a liver transplant at a London hospital and then, for the purpose of gaining comparative expertise, drove to Newcastle to test the local surgeon's skills by asking them to perform a similar operation.

Since the medical experience is most likely to be unique for most people, personal opinions of what constitutes a 'good' or 'poor' service are likely to be indiscriminately hovering in the 'satisfied' range, with only those patients blipping on the radar who have, for one or another reason, been seriously disgruntled about the service they received. Those are most likely to have encountered problems with their care which often end up at tribunals or on the desk of a solicitor. So, no surprise then that NHS surveys regularly indicate a high satisfaction rate of patients. We wouldn't know better! That's why the survey letter from my GP always goes straight to the bin. I happily profess my ignorance!

Monday 1 September 2014

One NHS?

Just published a piece on the NHS and devolution in Political Insight...

Read the full article HERE.

Image © Gary Barker