Making a difference and empowering patients

“My work is driven by doing what I feel is useful. I’ve always wanted to make real change happen now.”

Making a difference and empowering patients are central themes of Professor Ray Jones’ career. His research has introduced new computerised systems for health services, established digital professionalism in nursing curricula, and now enables rural and ageing communities to adopt technology that supports their wellbeing. 

Ray credits his interest in empowering patients through technology to Professor Tony Hedley, his professional mentor and PhD supervisor during his time at the Universities of Nottingham and Glasgow. Professor Hedley also gave Ray one of the first two positions in the UK with the title ‘Lecturer of Health Informatics’ in 1984.

“Tony directed me towards looking at GP records, chronic disease, and how technology can help with empowering patients; that was his legacy,” Ray says. “Through our work I felt the importance of giving people some control over their record. That has stayed with me all the way through my career.”

Read more: Now is the time for all patients to have access to their medical record

But Ray originally started on a very different path. Graduating from the University of London with a degree in maths and management studies, he joined the Defence sector working on how guided missiles track their targets.

“That was where I saw the light, really,” Ray says. “I knew the work would either be successful and result in deaths, or fail and be a complete waste of money. In rejecting the Defence sector, I found my moment of truth of wanting to work in the health service.” 

Since then, Ray’s research uniting computer sciences with health services has straddled the ‘Technological Revolution’, from pre-internet days when funders ‘didn’t believe patients would use computers’ through to digital personal assistants now appearing in almost every home. 

It had been revolutionary when, in 1979, Ray developed the first computer system that printed medical summaries for patients with diabetes, GPs and hospitals. A decade later, he proved to funders that patients would use computers to access health information effectively by creating the Healthpoint Kiosk, an innovative touch-screen unit installed in pubs and libraries. Ray has authored an impressive publications list, with papers published in the prestigious British Medical Journal – ‘my first BMJ paper was a highlight for me’.

Ray joined the University of Plymouth in January 2002 as Director of Research for the Institute of Health Studies. Looking for ways to connect students and patients in learning, he created the Satellite Seminar series in 2003 that then inspired the idea of streaming content online. 

“With my colleague Dr Cito Maramba, we sort-of invented webinars. There weren’t off-the-shelf options available then; we developed a way to broadcast video on the web with a parallel chat room. I manually changed the picture between video and screen on hardware in front of me,” Ray laughs at the memory. “It sounds archaic now but it was novel for the time.”

The online streaming of events led to wider adoption of webinars, expanding the culture of using technology and cementing the importance of digital skills in the nursing curriculum. Ray also recognised that his students could be the ‘agents for change’ as they entered the workforce, to close the now emerging digital inequality gaps for ageing and rural communities. 

This ideology carries through even today, to his current eHealth Productivity and Innovation in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly (EPIC) project. Funded by the European Regional Development Fund, it facilitates health technology developments, boosting quality of life and wellbeing by uniting patients, health services, and local businesses. 

“At the root of my work is the drive for implementation,” he says. “To make real change happen now. It struck me how you could have high quality studies in high quality journals but still have little impact. With EPIC, we have a ‘do first, publish later’ approach that isn’t typical in academia, but has already demonstrated positive impacts in the South West.” 

The response to Covid-19 has seen huge strides in eHealth, including greater uptake of the digital solutions that EPIC has been working to introduce in remote areas such as online GP consultations and care robotics – “The pandemic has accelerated in months what I’ve been trying to do for 40 years.” 

Whereas the challenge used to be the lack of information available to patients, nowadays they face quite the opposite issue.

“My aim was always to democratise information, giving people the information they want,” Ray says. “We couldn’t have predicted in the 1970’s and 80’s how the tide of information has changed. The challenge now is educating people to question information and find evidence to inform their decisions, especially as the level of misinformation available also increases.”

Increased digital connectivity also has environmental benefits, a parallel interest Ray has maintained since first learning of climate change and environmental issues during his university days, then as a long-term supporter of Greenpeace and the Green Party. Reducing emissions and increasing sustainable practices in healthcare services has been a thread through his work.

"For my research to truly make a difference, it has to be sustainable in every sense. I may not be able to do a lot about the environment but I do what I can through eHealth. There is no human health without a healthy environment," he says.

As he reflects on his vibrant career, Ray recognises the importance of embedding his common themes – patient empowerment, remote accessibility, digital professionalism, and sustainability – into healthcare practices and health curricula. 

My research needs to influence the next generation taking up the baton, so to speak, to become the champions for patient empowerment.

I’ll feel that I have been successful if, after I have retired, my legacy will mean I am remembered but not missed.