It’s always comical to watch movies from the 1980s, not only for the distinct style choices that typified that decade, but to see the type of technology most of us can still recall using. It’s nearly impossible to believe we used to happily lug around three pound mobile phones with antennas and back-up battery packs, but they offered a convenience the likes of which we had never seen before. While heading to the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), one of the most prominent tradeshows in the tech industry, I couldn’t help but think about the pace of change and get excited about the digital health innovations that will be showcased.
We tend to take for granted the conveniences and time-saving effects such innovation has on our lives. Prior to the pervasiveness of mobile technology, if you were walking down the street and you saw someone collapse, you would need to find the nearest store or phone booth to call for help. In fact, most of us probably knew which corners on our daily commute had pay phones. Now, even if you’ve left your phone in the car (an unthinkable these days) you can comfortably rely on the fact that someone nearby will have theirs in the case of an emergency.
Is your heart in it?
From a healthcare perspective, the interconnectivity of devices is fascinating and holds a lot of potential for engaging patients and improving health outcomes. Innovations such as smart watches, which are being outfitted with fitness trackers and heart rate monitoring sensors, can alert the wearer he has achieved 10,000 steps that day or that a runner has reached her target heart rate.
While innovations such as these are always exciting, the bigger picture is about creating a healthier population. According to the World Health Organization, cardiovascular disease is the number one cause of death in the world today. Factors such as poor diet and lack of physical activity are some of the main contributors to the disease— and they are also elements most of us struggle to balance. Wearable devices designed with intuitive interfaces hold the possibility of helping us maintain that balance, remind us of our inactivity, track our daily caloric intake, remind us of how many hours, minutes, and days it has been since our last cigarette.
When smart watches and fitness bands are tethered to mobile devices, we can layer on more practical applications for personal health management. What if you were walking down the street and your wearable could sense you were having a minor heart arrhythmia, send a signal to your phone, and have it call for help or advice? Or, perhaps, much like our phones can now alert us to poor traffic for our daily commute, what if your wearable, knowing you are diabetic, could sense low blood sugar, sync this data with your phone and tell you some appropriate restaurants and grocery stores nearby? They will be able to translate personal health data into steps and actions we, as patients, can take to better manage our care and keep ourselves healthier.
The benefits of an engaged patient population are numerous. Not only will people be healthier, but consider the above World Health Organization cardiovascular disease statistics and the associated costs of care, medication, and lost productivity, not to mention the personal impact on each of us. For coronary heart disease alone, the U.S. spends $108.9 billion. If people were more dialed in to their health— tracking, monitoring, and being rewarded by insurance companies for adherence to healthy lifestyle activities— imagine the savings both in lives and dollars. And with the pervasiveness of health IT innovation, we are seeing more consumer-facing health apps, such as Sharecare’s AskMD, becoming standard features on mobile devices. People can now use these apps to walk them through their symptoms, offer guidance on managing chronic conditions, and remind them to check in with their doctors.
We’ve come a long way from the shoe-box sized mobile phones of the ‘80s and it will be interesting to see a glimpse of our future technologies, widgets and devices on display at CES 2015. One thing is certain: whether you’re a physician or a patient, we’re all still consumers and our expectations for efficiency and conveniences on mobile devices will play a large role in the next phase our health evolution. In fact, I imagine the current wearable will be considered clunky and dated in as little as 10 years. We might find our lives equipped with even more svelte tools integrated with all of our healthcare data and real-time advisors, apps or avatars that coach, coerce or cheer us on through daily choices to keep our lives and health on the ideal track.