There is app that all healthcare professionals should know about it. Especially those that have to deal with emergencies and even better for the end user, it is free with no cost at all apart from the necessary internet and equipment access.

What3words is an innovative addressing system which has divided the world into a grid of 3-meter squares and given each square a unique combination of three words. These three words can give a precise geographical surface location anywhere in the world.

Of course, there are many existing and proven ways to do this currently in this country, with postal codes to help satellite navigation (sat-nav) in smart devices and car systems being common examples. In addition to postal codes, we also have longitude and latitude, ordinance survey co-ordinates for the UK, or a simple postal address may be sufficient for most people. We also have Grid Reference Finder, which helps with co-ordination of many of these different systems that each allow geographical location via separate methods.

So, in this current smartphone age, why do we need yet another unique system? Don’t we have enough different ways of finding a specific location?

But step forward the what3words website and associated app - an excellent edition for the modern era. I have watched this service mature and come into the mainstream, and I think it is an important one for healthcare professionals.

What3words has divided the world into a grid system of 3m by 3m squares and there are roughly 57 trillion (yes you read that right!) of these identical squares. Each square has an exclusive and unique address comprised of three seemingly random words in English, separated by a full stop. So for example, The London Eye’s address (the famous London observation wheel by the River Thames) is bend.mouse.assume if you wanted to meet someone at that precise spot. However, if you move just one square in any direction then this unique 3 word address radically changes. This precision lies at the core of this system and a specific square always retains the same words in the same format. The concept is simple yet very effective, impressive and accurate.

Words are easy to remember and in this system, they are confined to a very precise and localised area, a three metre square area to be exact. It is this accuracy that leads to a whole host of practical uses and whilst some are obvious other uses are less obvious. Imagine a scenario of a road traffic breakdown or a medical emergency and someone is in distress in a rural or a remote area or they are located in a strange urban area. They have no idea of the address, postal code and can only describe landmarks, to rescue or emergency services and this predicament can add to their distress.

Impressively the app can still partially function without online access (no Wi-Fi and mobile phone signal) and generate that critical three word address of your location. Learn more about this by watching this short and informative video.

Equally, it could be a patient trying to give their location to you and you can use the same technique. The website can link with other established mapping services such as Google Maps and it can also connect with other mainstream services like Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and email to help share that important and exact location. 

There are  downsides of this system. For example, some of the word combinations that is generated by the algorithm which powers this service, may be inappropriate.

What3words is also available in 46 different languages. In fact a Welsh language version was recently launched this year.

It is not just emergency services that can benefit from what3words. If you are separated from a group of people like family or friends in a crowded place such as a concert, sports arena etc. then you can all locate each other through this app. Again, this is because of the precision of the location; it is a 3m by 3m square. Equally vulnerable people such as the homeless or those housed in tents following a disaster; their location could be also be accurately and precisely identified by what3words.

Some people around the world don’t have an official postal address, again this resource could assist. In fact Mongolia has used this system in its postal service. Whilst a delivery address for goods ordered online or by phone can be made more precise.

In this country, a common use will be a request for an emergency facility such as healthcare, ambulance, police and road breakdown services. Many people reading this column are healthcare professionals and maybe we should all start thinking about downloading and using this app. Equally if you (or family or friends) are in a pickle such as a car breakdown, it would be handy to have this app at the ready. If you or your family don’t have this app consider downloading it on to your suitable mobile device and bookmark the website and understand how it works, which is not that difficult.

You never know when you or your family will need it.


 Dr Harry Brown is a GP, Leeds and medical editor of GM