Will accessible healthcare technology disrupt current delivery models?

August 7, 2014

For decades, scientists have been measuring bodily functions to improve health and fitness. Sports scientists have used wireless wearable tech to track the performance of athletes and recommend improvements. Larry Smarr, a physicist, and a computer scientist, has been measuring his bodily functions in minute detail, and in turn changing, and improving his lifestyle for better health outcomes. Advances in design and healthcare technology are making health monitoring more accessible and into the hands of everyone. Would this be a fad or can these techs allow individuals to better manage their health everyday?

Quantifying a field leads to objectivity for the stakeholders. Up until recently, an individual’s health was a subjective diagnosis, unless the clinical reasoning was provided by a doctor, or through laboratories for specific tests. The most common quantitative home-health devices are weighing scales, thermometers, glucometers, and blood pressure monitors, which all began in an analogue format. Now, the digital evolutions are found in almost every household. However, these are commonly used, only under necessity – particularly individual conditions (diabetes, fever, etc.). The data measured is either discarded, or not brought into context of the overall health of the individual, once the condition ceases.

With the introduction of big data, and the Internet of things, an individual’s health can be monitored in an overwhelming number of methods. Recent popular methods are fitness trackers, such as JawBone and Fitbit, which are amongst the commercialised and popular options, and with a highly anticipated version of “iWatch” from Apple in the offing. Intel and LG are developing trackers that are to be worn in the ear, like earphones. This movement has been around since 1982, with Polar pioneering the way forward for wearable heart rate monitors, used mainly by sports scientists and athletes.

Following the fitness fad, other healthcare technologies are emerging. Google along with Novartis is developing contact lenses that would measure glucose levels in the tears, and transmit the data to a smartphone. 23andMe sends their subscribers a home-use kit to map one’s DNA. uBiome is a social mission trying to record and create a database of microbiome of individuals. Biosense’s uChek allows use of smartphones to perform a wide variety of tests ranging from routine urine analysis to specialised laboratory tests, making it a portable diagnostic platform. Going a step further, Cue is an unitised testing platform that completes the diagnostic test, and sends the results to a smart device.

The wave is not restricted to molecular parameters. dorsaVi, an Australian startup, is promoting their wearable sensor that tracks user physical movements for better pain management (for e.g. back pain). In critical medicine, sensors are being developed, which would be integrated into orthopaedic implants, and coronary stents, to monitor the patient’s progress, and also the medical device’s performance for further development.

The healthcare technology above has made monitoring accessible through usability simplification rather than invention. One of the big game-changers is the ability to collect, sort, co-relate and analyse all this data. The access to smart-devices is allowing a common platform for these technologies to connect together, which allows for easier public health research. However, it would not be conducive to know one’s health parameters, without knowing his/ her medical history, and clinical judgment of a healthcare professional. Efforts are underway to develop software, which would be able to bring data from variety of sources into one legitimate deliverable to reveal a clearer and fuller picture of an individual’s health, this would disrupt the current healthcare model.

What is the bigger picture of the plethora of health data collection of an individual? Individually, monitoring health parameters has obvious benefits of encouraging and maintaining better health, but also it could help in selecting the optimum treatment plan, make health care provider interactions efficient, and also save on that embarrassing trip to the doctor where the symptoms disappear for that 5 minutes you meet him/ her! Collectively, the data can open up vast treasure for research to prevent and manage diseases/ conditions. Medical device makers, and pharmaceutical manufacturers could develop safer and more effective solutions. Epidemic outbreaks could be controlled and managed in a more efficient manner. Commercially, better suited health insurance plans, and advertisements could be created. IBM has directed a wonderful video explaining a fraction of the positive effects of big data for health.

The major sticking points are the privacy issues, and unclear regulations surrounding some of the devices. The large amount of data that would be available to the service providers is nerving, and equally worrisome is someone making a mistake in trying to self-diagnose and self-treat a serious condition. Regulations still need to catch up to the massive strides in technology, especially since some of it is still unproven for use in masses. However, these hurdles are not large enough to derail this movement.

These advances, in general, are progressing the world towards better awareness of an individual’s health. The potential is immense, and it is exciting to know that several enthusiasts are working to bring this to reality.


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