Technology will revolutionise our healthcare over the next few years, from wearables such as smart shirts, socks or contact lenses to a fridge that records your nutritional intake. By Christine Morgan
Love it or loathe it, consumer technology has transformed the way we communicate, inform and entertain ourselves. And next, it’s going to revolutionise our health and wellbeing.
It’s no secret that the next big push in technology will be for health. Indeed, the revolution has already begun, with health-related apps and fitness gadgets released almost daily.
But Bupa says health tech will be much more sophisticated in the near future and that within ten years, mobile technology will have completely transformed medical provision across the world.
Dr Paul Zollinger-Read, Bupa’s chief medical officer, believes advanced mobile technology will help us to take responsibility for our own health.
“Being aware of their likelihood of disease and possible risk factors, coupled with constant monitoring through intelligent technology, means people will be able to spot the symptoms of illness from a very early stage, or simply prevent them altogether,” he says.
Health technology being developed
These five ideas may sound far-fetched now, but they are all serious proposals or in the very early stages of development: a shirt that detects irregular blood sugar levels; contact lenses that monitor changes in your retina; a smart toilet that analyses your vitamin intake as well as your hydration levels; intelligent fibres in your clothes that keep track of your pulse, breathing and heart rate; and a smart fridge that records your nutritional and calorie intake.
This ‘smart’ future may be closer than you think, with human trials of a miniature artificial pancreas are due to begin in 2016 and Google’s smart contact lens – which detects glucose levels in the wearer’s tears – is already in the development pipeline.
Chances are, if you’re a smartphone user, you’re already well acquainted with the world of apps. And if you’re not using any yet, it’s probably just a matter of time.
Whatever you want to do – lose weight, quit smoking, get fit, count calories, track your alcohol intake or manage a specific health condition – there’s an app for that already. This year, health and fitness apps have already grown at nearly twice the rate of apps in general, suggests a report by Business Insider.
According to PricewaterhouseCoopers and global mobile operators’ association GSMA, the health apps market will grow from $7 billion to $26 billion by 2017.
“There are around 100,000 health apps available, though this is increasing rapidly,” says Damon Lightley, managing director at Genetic Apps, an app developer for the health, sports, medical and pharma markets.
Health apps of the future
One day soon, your GP may prescribe an app such as WellDoc, currently being trialled in the US and activated by a code issued to you by your pharmacy. Or you’ll be using Babylon, an app that lets you book virtual consultations, track your symptoms and receive prescriptions, with no need to wait.
“During the next five years, health apps will empower consumers to make improved and informed lifestyle choices leading to better health and reducing the risk of chronic disease,” says Lightley. “They’ll also enable healthcare professionals to detect diseases earlier and reduce care costs.”
And how. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, health apps could save €99 billion in care costs across Europe by 2017.
How do I know which app is best?
“Initially health apps were led by consumer-friendly products tied to fitness and general wellbeing,” says Lightly. “But we’ve just entered the stage where apps and mobile connected devices are being used as tools by healthcare professionals.
“In the near future, we will see mobile, wearables and data-collection devices mesh together to provide the backbone for the optimisation and customisation of preventative health and medical treatment.
“And we’ll see things like smart clothing and other devices like smart inhalers ‘talking’ to apps to provide easier and quicker analysis for both consumers and healthcare professionals.”
However, while quantity may not be an issue, finding quality health apps can be a problem. How can you be sure you’re using one you can trust?
Enter the NHS Health Apps Library. Although the number of apps it lists is on the low side, they have all been approved by the NHS for their clinical safety.
Aside from apps, 2014 has undoubtedly been the year of wearable technology.
These include fitness band trackers containing sensors that track your heartbeat, how many calories you’ve burned, how many steps you’ve taken and so on. Popular devices including the Fitbit Flex, Jawbone UP and Nike+ FuelBand.
You may even be wearing one right now: according to a report by management consultancy firm Accenture, 22 per cent of people in the US currently have a fitness band and 43 per cent will be using one by 2018.
The current buzz in wearables, however, is all about smart watches. Apple’s hotly anticipated iWatch is due to fly off the Apple Store shelves in early 2015 (though similar devices are already available from LG, Motorola and Samsung, among others).
But fitness bands and smart watches are child’s play compared to the wearables of the future, says Alfred Poor, editor of Health Tech Insider. He is a man who obviously knows his onions, and he suggests that some of the developments just around the corner include a smart sock that helps keep track of people with Alzheimer’s disease and a skin patch that delivers hypodermic injections throughout the day.
In future winters (it won’t be ready this year), your smartphone could also keep your feet warm. Digitsole is an insole that connects to a mobile device and lets you adjust the temperature of your shoes. It also helps with your posture.
Innovations for diabetics
But there’s more to health tech than apps and wearables. Medical gadgets have been around for years, but modern technology is making so many more things possible.
Take lasers, for example. They are aready used in the medical world for improving eyesight, treating cancers and diagnosing bone disease, but could one day help take the sting out of blood sugar testing, a daily chore for some diabetics.
Researchers from Princeton University have discovered how to use lasers to monitor your blood sugar level, which means you don’t have to prick yourself to draw blood. All they have to do now is make their laser system smaller and more practical to use.
“We are working hard to turn engineering solutions into useful tools for people to use in their daily lives,” says Professor Claire Gmachl, who leads the Princeton research team.
“With this work we hope to improve the lives of many diabetes sufferers who depend on frequent blood glucose monitoring.”
And there you were thinking lasers were only good for smoothing wrinkles, whitening teeth and zapping unwanted body hair.