When we meet a doctor, it’s journals from past visits they turn to. These may or may not be relevant to our current condition. And we’re asked to describe our pain, asked if we’ve noticed any recent changes in our health, and asked when we began to feel this way. Difficult questions to answer. Could the answers to these and many other health-related questions be tucked away in our devices?
Many of us today are walking medical journals. Our diets, weights, exercise regimes–you name it–are logged in apps, wearables and other digital platforms. But this data is usually only available to ourselves and the companies we purchase services from (and potentially any companies they sell the data to). Healthcare professionals who could use this data to provide us with better healthcare, rarely get to see this information.
The growing cost of healthcare
Advancements in healthcare over the past decades are astonishing. Many of us live longer and richer lives because of them. But they have come at a cost. In the UK, for instance, the National Health Services expenditure has risen by 50% in 10 years – that’s a 40 billion pound cost. While in Sweden, healthcare costs account for 9.5% of BNP, up from 6-7% in the 1970s. Some of this cost can be put down to the reactive nature of healthcare, and the way that people are bounced around the system when they become sick.
Your data is out there
But returning to the earlier scenario: the visit to a doctor with an ailment. Imagine if your doctor spent five minutes viewing the recent health and well-being data from the digital information you collected prior to a consultation. Just what could be viewed and how could it help?
Firstly, we have the obvious step counters and activity loggers that record how far you’ve moved (and, as the US defense department recently found out where you are). This type of information is invalid if somebody has an injury from excessive training, or to see if they have become less active. OK, big deal you might think, it’s easy to tell a doctor this. But what about weight, BMI and muscle, bone and water mass. These details are more difficult to keep track of, but stepping on your digital scale every day could provide your doctor with these health statistics.
Do you remember what you ate for lunch last Thursday, or the weekdays leading up to that? No? The chances are you’re not logging your food intake in an app, if you did this however and doctors had access to the data, they could correlate it to your weight, BMI, activity and general fitness.
How have you been sleeping lately?
This is a typical question from a doctor, to which a typical answer could be, “No less than usual.” But what’s ‘the usual’? Lack of sleep has an incredible impact on our health.
In his book Why we Sleep, Mathew Walker, Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, examines the effect of what he calls an epidemic of sleep-loss. Walker puts the cost of sleep loss to the UK economy at over £30bn a year in lost revenue, or 2% of GDP. He also claims sleep loss has a direct impact on Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity and poor mental health.
The easiest way to know how much you sleep each night is via a wearable, while more advanced digital solutions such as beddit provide details on breathing, snoring and sleeping environment. With access to this type of data your doctor could assess your ailments in a different way – they could be a natural effect of sleep deprivation, but without the data it’s impossible to know.
Ordering health data online
OK, if we leave wearables and apps behind, what other data can we share with doctors to help them? Blood test kits can now be ordered online covering a wide array of issues, such as thyroid, type 2 diabetes, anaemia, cholesterol levels, prostrate, vitamin deficiency, and more. With one click you can have a nurse come to your home, take a blood sample, and send your blood for analysis, before the results are analysed by an accredited doctor. Health data such as this is invaluable for a doctor. Is your issue related to your thyroid? Does that affect your sleeping patterns, can it even have contributed to any recent weight gain? Such conversations may never come up during a meeting with a GP, but your aggregated data could tell this or a similar story.
The big C
You can’t talk about healthcare without talking about cancer. And research is now being carried out on ways of using devices to screen for potential issues. Researchers at the University of Washington are developing an app that analyses the colour of a person’s eyes to detect early symptoms of pancreatic cancer. Elsewhere, a team of graduates from McMaster University in Canada, have been awarded external funding to pursue their research on a cheap and portable skin cancer detector. Although in the early stages, this research highlights how valuable digitilisation is becoming in healthcare and how we as individuals can and will be able to use our devices in the future to monitor our own health.
So what does all this mean?
We have an ecosystem of personal healthcare within our grasp that we are not fully utilising. Of course not all data gathered can be trusted by healthcare professionals, and the sooner more wearables become FDA-approved (such as this device for epilepsy patients that began life as a crowd-funded campaign) the better. However, how we choose to collect, read and validate this data moving forward will have a big impact on the future of healthcare research and treatment, and it’s something we will be following closely.
Keep an eye out for our next article where we’ll be exploring the design perspective of healthcare. If you’re unsure what this is, here’s a little taster.