Dependence on digital technology to improve personal health is a growing phenomenon.
Is there an app for that?
Last winter, I came down with a burning fever and spent the weekend drifting in and out of a self-medicated stupor. I don’t remember much of those two days, except the fifteen minutes I had spent downloading apps that promised to accurately take body temperature (if you place your finger on the smartphone’s camera).
With the market exploding with smartphone apps that suggest and advise on personal wellbeing by collecting and analyzing your data, there is now an app for almost everything related to personal health: from monitoring sleep cycles, moderating food intake, planning exercise regimes, to tracking ovulation cycles. Judging from the overwhelming focus on fitness digital products and wearables at CES 2016, this is only set to increase.
People now know their bodies better and are well equipped to make informed health choices based on their personal data. This personally collected data can additionally help doctors treat their patients better, with an accurate medical and health history available for easy download.
The entry of digital technology in healthcare fundamentally has the potential to reshape the way we approach personal healthcare (i.e. Predict-and-Prevent model versus Break-Fix) and increase the efficiency of healthcare delivery by nipping common illnesses in the bud before they are fully-blown, easing the workloads of overworked doctors in overcrowded hospitals.
Digital health data often overlooked
However, this true potential of personal digital healthcare remains unrealized. While going digital has made strides in informing lifestyle choices, the health data collected continues to be fragmented at best, and is often not incorporated in the patient diagnosis process. In fact, 42 percent of polled consumers using digital health data say their data often goes nowhere. Although most of the consumers are willing to share this data with their doctors, the uptake by medical health practitioners remains lower in comparison.
Doctors want to receive their patients’ health data feeds and do recognize the meaningfulness of such data in informing their diagnoses. But the lack of tools to unify and transform this data to inform smart medical decisions has halted their uptake.
The true potential of personal digital healthcare it seems, will only be realized when going digital shifts from just fitness and lifestyle to the establishment of an integrated digital environment that securely connects patients (and their data) with doctors at all stages of the medical process (diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment).
The future of healthcare
So what would a fully integrated digital healthcare environment look like?Wearable technology tracks accurate and long-term medical and fitness history (including measuring body temperature). This personal health data is automatically uploaded into a cloud, which is accessible by medical professionals. For minor illnesses, doctors are able to diagnose quickly and provide a treatment plan for the patient virtually, and arrange for medicine to be sent home (paid for via internet payment gateways). This leaves doctors with more time to focus on treating major illnesses that require a face-to-face interaction.
A major issue that needs to be tackled before integration can effectively take place is that of data privacy and security. It is one thing to share information about your sleep cycles with your mates, and quite another to share sensitive medical data (e.g. your DNA sequence) about your body to a cloud. In Switzerland, people are already uncomfortable about the national transport system retaining data of their daily commutes on the trains. It is then needless to say a fully integrated digital healthcare environment will take a lot of getting used to.
There are naysayers who also fear an overreliance on digital technology in healthcare can have devastating consequences. Like an elderly woman who does not take her regular medication because her notification app did not alert her to, as an example.
Ready or not
It is undeniable that the digital disruption in healthcare is underway. Judging from the current speed of innovation we are facing these days, a fully integrated digital healthcare environment may not be so far away in the making. Ultimately, the digital transformation will herald a new era in patient healthcare and personal wellbeing.
Aisha Schnellmann is a Singaporean native who spent four years recently working with an international philanthropic foundation. A sociology graduate from the National University of Singapore, she was as often at the floating villages of Cambodia conversing with beneficiaries, and the boardrooms of multi-national companies, speaking with executives and donors.
Currently based in Zurich, her interest in digital healthcare grew from the conversations she had with committed medical staff in rural hospitals in Asia, who remain hard-pressed with the technology available to them.