Computer games: NHS Digital guru, Martin Moth

J Pinching 19 December 2017


Martin Moth reached dizzy heights, landed in 1980s gaming development and finally saw the light.


My guest this time is NHS Digital guru, Martin Moth, a man with the glorious job title, ‘Health Tools Lead’ – responsible for driving public health and patients into an engaging, digitally-enhanced future. How he arrived at this point is remarkable, unorthodox and completely captivating. Sit back, fasten your seatbelt, take a slug of coffee and enjoy the ride.


What projects are you working on at the mo?

A revamp of the BMI Calculator. An update of our most popular tool, which has 600,000 uses per month, is long-overdue, so we’re currently conducting user research on why people use it and what we can improve. I’m also working with a military charity to create a mental health tool for the Armed Forces community.


How has the year 2017 been for you and what were the highlights?

It’s gone very quickly and, workwise, it’s improving. New management has been very supportive of health tools, so I’m gaining greater support. Highlights include doubling the size of the team from me, to me plus one, and launching an updated version of the Heart Age tool.


Do you think healthcare has finally taken digital to its heart?

Yes and no. There will always be early adopters, but the mass market will wait until the unproven idea becomes a reality, while the remainder can never quite understand what digital could do for their business. Things are improving – it’s tying all the disparate systems together that’s a headache.


What is the ethos and aim of NHS Digital?

The official line is: “NHS Digital exists to improve health and care by providing national information, data and IT services for patients, clinicians, commissioners and researchers.” NHS Choices, where I work, exists under the NHS Digital umbrella, and it’s our remit to be the online ‘front door’ to the NHS in England.


How do you work with pharma and what partnerships do you have with industry?

I do everything from showing pharma board members how they can get involved in digital and what the commercial benefits are, through to advising on the development of health tools. I aim to spread digital know-how as widely as possible, because if new health tools get developed it’s always the end user that benefits.


In what ways can pharma exploit digital?

Unique selling proposition and data. As we move towards self-management of conditions, anything that can differentiate one drug from another will be used by prescribers. If you build a tool that helps users manage their condition, you meet a user need. These tools provide data on people’s health, which feeds into further development, and the cycle continues.


What do you think healthcare will look like in a few years?

I worry about the ageing population and obesity epidemic. Over the next few years that could cripple or bankrupt the NHS. Most people won’t comprehend how precious the NHS is until it’s gone.


Let’s go back in time – tell me about the start of your career?

I have moved swiftly and in an uncontrolled way! I started in the RAF as a lowly Pilot Officer, but didn’t make the grade in my flying training. I stumbled into magazine publishing, via an old family friend, working on the Atari ST mag, ST World, and have stayed in digital since 1987.


How did you get into computer game developing?

I was interviewing computer games companies for our second mag, ST Action and heard on the grapevine that MicroProse, the flight simulation specialists, were bringing their PR inhouse. I met the MD, told him ‘I’m the man for the job’ and 45 minutes later I was PR Manager! After a year, I became a Games Producer, managing external development teams. Essentially, I’m a geek in a suit, and it’s this dual personality that enables me to develop interactive software with a commercial focus.


Which notable computer games did you work on?

Geoff Crammond’s Grand Prix, F-19 Stealth Fighter, Stunt Car Racer, Rick Dangerous, Dogfight and F-15 Strike Eagle.


What are your memories of the early days working in computers?

It was an exciting time. Due to hardware limitations, gameplay was more important than graphics. Fantastic coders were able to fit an entire game into just 512Kb. For F-19, to enable players to accurately navigate using the stars, this guy mapped the entire night sky in 16kb! One memory that stands out involved a ‘handshake deal’ I made with Williams for telemetry data to make our Grand Prix II sim. When I went to their HQ in 1995, they’d wired up Alain Prost’s ’93 drive-by-wire FW15C to run our original sim. I sat in the car and ‘raced’ around Monza!


How has your computer game past influenced what you do for NHS Digital?

Ease of use and user-centred design. MicroProse had a tagline of ‘Easy to learn, difficult to master’. The key is to engage the user and give them a long product life. It was about giving users what they want, not what you decide they must have.


Are patients engaging with NHS Digital?

Yes, but it is still early days. Our Heart Age tool is quite complex, but has had 1.3million completed uses, and driven more people to know about their cholesterol and blood pressure. Digital health, like ‘real’ health, is still mostly used by women – NHS Choices site usage is typically split 60/40 female to male. So, in future, getting men more involved in their own health is essential.


Did you ever think ‘video games’ would become the global phenomenon they are now?

Yes – when I met some pilots at RAF Wittering, they told me they would regularly play our Harrier flight sim, even after flying the real thing all day. I knew the market would grow as hardware developed.


What one record would you choose for the soundtrack of your life?

I’m an 80s romantic at heart, so it has to be ‘Gentlemen Take Polaroids’, by Japan.


It’s your last supper, what are you having?

Something Italian, simple and pasta-based, followed by dark chocolate ice cream, sitting at the edge of Lake Garda, while the sun goes down. The setting is as important as the food.


I’ll see what I can do, Martin. Goodbye.

Bye John.   





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