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Falling ill may be inevitable, but what might save you is technology. We are not talking about computers and phones here, but the kind you can wear to monitor your health.

At Techventure 2013, a two-day conference held at the Suntec Singapore Convention & Exhibition Center, all which is new in digital health was the topic du jour.

Digital healthcare—a burgeoning field that can be segmented into three key areas: devices, digital doctors and data science—is part of a “digital revolution causing the creative destruction of medicine,” says Mr. Vaibhav Bhandari, director of product management at Optum, a subsidiary of the US-based United Health Group.

“Over the past two years, there has been overall year-on-year funding growth of over 23 percent and deal growth of over 17 percent,” he says.

Indeed, some of the latest inventions in wearable technology are already commercially available. Take the Nike+ FuelBand, Samsung Galaxy Gear and Google Glass, for example.

Who knew that a thin rubber wrist bracelet could be used to track user physical activity from the number of steps taken to the amount of calories burned? The Nike+ FuelBand even allows its users to set their fitness goals and share their achievements with family and friends. Strap on the Samsung Galaxy Gear, which incorporates smartphone technology into a watch, to monitor your progress when you go on a run.

Taking interactivity to the next level, the Bandu, a wrist device that tracks perspiration, respiration and heart rates, can even play a soothing song or suggest that you phone a friend when you are stressed out. “Any device that can intervene or improve your mental state is very important,” says Mr. Chikodi Chima, vice president of business development at the US-based Cleantech Law Partners.

Meanwhile, Google, the company better known for its search engine domination, has developed what is essentially a 50g mini-computer configured like a pair of eyeglasses. Google Glass, a wearable computer that has a frame similar to traditional eyeglasses, follows voice commands to take photos and videos that show the viewpoint of the user. It even includes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth capabilities, a camera, voice-activation commands and a heads-up display.

In September 2013, Dr. J S Rajkumar, Chief Surgeon of Lifeline Hospitals in Chennai, became the first doctor in India to incorporate Google Glass in the operating theater. Using the device, he live streamed a hernia repair procedure onto a video chat platform called Google Hangout for his students to observe.

But the applications for Google Glass are not confined to education. Researchers from Philips Healthcare’ newly created Digital Accelerator Lab, a cross-sector innovation platform with labs based in the Netherlands and India, collaborated with researchers from Accenture Technology Labs to explore the potential use of Google Glass in clinical settings. Their recently released a proof-of-concept video demonstrated how clinicians could use the device to monitor patient vital statistics and provide quick referencing of X-ray and MRI images during procedures, without ever having to take their eyes off the procedure or patient.

In another application of wearable technology in the clinic, patients are fitted with a wearable device called the ZIO-XT patch during a short outpatient appointment, after which their heart rhythm can be remotely tracked over two weeks. Data from the device is sent to a clinical center for processing and analysis, culminating in a report that is sent to the doctor who can more accurately diagnose an instance of cardiac arrhythmia. What this means for patients is lower cost, less psychological stress and more accurate diagnoses.

Although these devices have yet to become commonplace items, investing in wearable technology is beneficial because they “give your body a voice,” Chima says, adding that purchasing a device that can improve one’s health is a much better investment than an expensive gaming console.

As he paced the stage, the tall speaker revealed that he was wearing a belt-like monitoring device called the LUMOback, which vibrated whenever he assumed a slouching posture. “Sitting is the new smoking,” Chima quips.

In the age of online apps and tablet computers, patients can take greater ownership over their healthcare management using an online platform called PatientsLikeMe. By openly sharing their health data in the form of healthcare experiences and outcomes, patients can not only help accelerate research into diseases that may be hindered by privacy regulations, but also “crowdsource” for medical advice such as preventive care. “These online portals are changing the way patients manage their conditions and the way that medical interventions are devised,” Bhandari says. But Bhandari notes that healthcare in developed countries appears to be stuck in a different century, with patient data still primarily transported by a largely outmoded form of communication: the facsimile. Nevertheless, the healthcare industry is slowly inching toward replacing the humble fax with secure Internet-based direct communication.

 

More troubleshooting required

While digital health holds great promise, innovators should remain mindful of data security and patient safety, says Bhandari. Advances in digital healthcare technologies that empower patients may also increase the risks associated with less medical oversight, he cautions.

Other hurdles to widespread use include the potential for these technologies to report inaccurate information and their high cost. Nonetheless, wearable technology is today a US$3-5 billion market, and Credit Suisse forecasts that its value will skyrocket to US$30-50 billion in the next three to five years due to strong consumer interest.

Looking to the future, a visit to the doctor could unfold this way: using an iPad to pull up your health records and vital information, the doctor could—instead of prescribing medication—prescribe an app or wearable device to monitor your health or change your behavior.

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