By Tamara StClaire
This guest post is part of the Festschrift of the Blogosphere celebrating HealthBlawg’s Tenth Blogiversary. Festschrift posts are appearing throughout the month of June 2016.
Imagine for a moment a day in the life of a type 2 diabetic. Today, her efforts to stay physically active, maintain a balanced diet and monitor stress levels are analog and disjointed; but we’re approaching an era in which they will be digital and connected.
Her alarm clock wakes her up at 5:30 a.m. and guides her through an appropriate exercise routine – 30 minutes of cardio and 15 minutes of strength training. She then weighs herself on her Wi-Fi-enabled scale and checks her blood glucose level using an attachment on her smartphone. Both of these readings go straight into the phone’s fitness dashboard and to her physician.
When she goes to her refrigerator, she receives a notification that her weight is 0.5 pounds higher than the day before, and that she should consider a green smoothie for breakfast – the recipe for which her nutritionist provided at the beginning of the month. Afterwards, the fridge places an order with the local supermarket to have the ingredients re-stocked.
Later on at work, a sensor embedded in her watch detects a higher than usual heart rate – likely due to the big presentation she’s scheduled to lead later that afternoon. Her smartphone suggests a yoga class during her lunch break instead of the stress-eating alternative of McDonalds.
None of this could have been possible a few years ago. But the Affordable Care Act catalyzed a consumer-driven wave of transformation in the healthcare industry – one that’s made hypothetical anecdotes like this one part of a not-so-distant future. There are other examples of technologies that will soon help us survive and thrive – like virtual reality and ingestible “smart” medicine – but there are also a myriad of challenges that mean the journey won’t be an easy one.
The not-so-distant future of healthcare
Everyone knows that sugary soft drinks will make them gain weight – but imagine watching your own avatar sipping soda with time flying by at super speed, presenting a simulated time-lapse of your hips and waist expanding. Not surprisingly, researchers have found that Virtual Reality (VR) messages like this one sink in far deeper than a simple pamphlet.
Allowing people to experience the future today makes them more likely to change their present-day behaviors, placing preventive health directly in the crosshairs of virtual reality. While somewhat controversial, using new technologies will be critical in addressing some of the issues that put a massive financial strain on the healthcare system.
As another example, medication adherence is a major issue that affects the health of patients and creates unnecessary waste in healthcare costs. Digital pills offer a way to dramatically improve care while reducing costs. They can track ingestion through small sensors that send information to a patch on a patient’s skin. In turn, the patch sends confirmation of medication adherence to a smartphone. Combined with wearables, smartphones and cloud computing, “smart pharma” could be the key to treating chronic conditions without endless physical checkups.
As much fun as it may be to think about where the healthcare industry is heading, it’s also sobering to take a critical view of where we are on the path to realization of the innovations sketched out above and consider some of the barriers that remain. For example:
- For the connected home to come alive, we need a central “brain” – an integrated system that includes healthcare providers and care givers.
- Today’s virtual reality is a medium that comes with a big price tag, and the experience isn’t yet personalized enough to have the biggest impact.
- Ethics are a major concern around the use of digital pills. Who will have access to data collected by them, and what can they use the data for?
Suffice it to say, we can be optimistic about the future and we have a lot of work to do.
Hurdles between today and tomorrow
Privacy and Security
With data breaches making headline news consistently, the challenge of privacy and security tends to be first on any list of technology impediments catalyzed by the Internet of Things. According to a 2015 study, almost 45% of Americans have had their personal information exposed in a healthcare cyberattack – more than once, in some cases. Stats like this one keep healthcare chief information security officers awake at night.
Blockchain is one technology gaining momentum as the solution. Although it’s better established within the financial services sector, it can help prevent healthcare breaches with multi-signatures and cryptography. Data is hashed onto the blockchain, and people can only gain access if there is approval from the appropriate number of people. The beauty of adopting this technology in healthcare is that a patient could have full control over their medical information and select the information they would like to share with different individuals.
Keeping healthcare data out of the wrong hands is one challenge, so it’s ironic that another is allowing it to be put in the right hands. The ability of two or more systems to exchange information is crucially important to the future of healthcare, but this interoperability is currently a huge challenge.
Today, the ever-growing volume of patient data is mostly contained within disparate clinical systems. And this siloed reality often forces clinicians to make decisions based on fragmented, incomplete information. As the mobile and virtual healthcare landscape continues to explode, data needs to be aggregated and transformed into actionable knowledge that can truly improve patient health, workflow, quality metrics and financial outcomes.
While other industries, like financial services, have been longtime users of Application Program Interfaces (APIs), healthcare has been slower to adopt the technology, which presents opportunities for developers to create new and innovative applications by following a well-defined set of rules. In this sense, the use of APIs can result in a true “app store” approach to healthcare data and interoperability and enable plug-and-play capabilities between systems.
The healthcare industry generally agrees that it’s in the midst of a consumer-driven transformation. It follows naturally, of course, that innovation in the space would be designed for the consumer – and yet we’ve seen countless healthcare technologies fail because they weren’t built with the consumer in mind. Too often, healthcare companies are only equipped with a hammer – so everything around them looks too much like a nail.
We need to remember to start with humans – their unique challenges, motivations and aspirations – before designing anything. Healthcare needs to incorporate the consumer-centric design thinking that’s enabled companies like Amazon and Apple to thrive.
The future of healthcare is undoubtedly bright, despite the challenges we’re navigating. By harnessing the technology, tools and passion available to us, we’ll survive and thrive through a new, consumer-focused paradigm of health and wellness.
Tamara StClaire is the Chief Innovation Officer of Xerox’s Commercial Healthcare unit. She leads the commercial healthcare innovation portfolio, and creates new opportunities as well as identifies, incubates, and matures partnerships and acquisitions.