Technology + Healthcare: A force for positive change

I'm hooked.

I just finished the full series of Black Mirror on Netflix. If you haven't already heard, Black Mirror is a series which takes technology trends, innovations and behaviours that exist today but extrapolates them years into the future. Each episode provides a rather pessimistic view of the world to come and more often than not, each has a dark and cynical ending. The negative consequences of people’s relationship with technology quickly becomes clear. It drives people to over analyse situations, encourages them to live in the past, cross privacy boundaries and in some situations, reduces the likelihood of stories being told first hand as technology increasingly captures our memories and day-to-day activities.

Arguably, this isn’t too far from reality. However, being an optimistic and positive person I can’t help but question after each episode – doesn’t technology also have the potential to bring with it positive change? Change that is able to improve people’s quality of life for the better. To help answer the question I wanted to focus on one of our most important and precious possessions in life - our health. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve become aware of 3 positive changes in the healthcare sector that are being driven by technology and are worth sharing. 

Keeping track of our health and fitness

The first is a gradual shift from a traditionally reactive model of healthcare to a more proactive one. We’ve all become familiar with the concept of self-help, whether that be in supermarkets or booking travel, and it is something that is extending to healthcare. The recent NHS partnership with Babylon Health, a medical AI consultant based app, to replace the existing telephone helpline is a prime example of this. As wearables and our devices continue to store and analyse patterns in our personal data, increasingly we’re also able to receive immediate feedback about our performance. With 14% of internet users now classified as Fitness Fanatics*, it’s no surprise that wearables were a hot topic at CES 2017.

Whilst the shift to a more proactive and self-help based model of healthcare will continue to bring with it adoption barriers, particularly regarding privacy and trust, the longer-term benefits outweigh the shorter-term ones in my mind. First and foremost, wearable technology is empowering us to take a more active role in managing our own health as well as the health of loved ones. We each have a responsibility to look after our health and technology is providing us with the opportunity to make more informed decisions about how we live our lives. With an ageing population in the UK and the NHS increasingly coming under pressure to reduce patient waiting times, it’s also a positive step towards making medical advice and care more accessible, whether that be physically or virtually.  

Personalised healthcare from diagnosis to treatment

As well as empowering us to better manage our health, Artificial Intelligence is providing the potential for increasingly personalised healthcare. You may remember last year IBM’s AI system, Watson, saved a woman with Leukaemia by analysing her genetics and comparing it against millions of studies, something doctors wouldn’t have been able to do as efficiently. Similarly, Human Longevity is a fascinating US project compiling a database of millions of people’s DNA in order to calculate patients life expectancy and identify ways to extend it (but with a hefty price tag of $25,000). 23andMe on the other hand, provides an at-home saliva-based DNA kit for a more modest price (well, arguably!) of £149 per kit. As well as diagnosis, AI is making impressive strides in medical treatment too. Just take Atomwise as an example. They are a company using deep learning technology to predict which potential medicines will be successful and inevitably, are helping to save medicine development time, money and lives.

 

Of course, personalised healthcare brings with it important ethical, social, financial and even legal challenges however, the overall objective is a positive one - to improve the quality and effectiveness of healthcare. Healthcare that is truly tailored to you. It is something that has already proved beneficial in the treatment of serious diseases such as cancer, although it’s an evolving approach to healthcare. Some doctors even predict that with developments in 3D printing, it won’t be long before patients are able to print their own medical prescriptions!

 

Encouraging healthier habits

As well as taking a more active role in our health and fitness and delivering more personalised healthcare, technology is encouraging us to adopt healthier habits. Oscar Health as an example, are a health insurance company allowing customers to earn up to $1 a day for reaching personalised daily step goals. As well as rewarding people for adopting healthier habits and lifestyles, technology will continue to provide opportunities to share our data for the common good. MediHex, whilst still a prototype is a move towards this. It’s a device that would allow people in the future to track and upload their health data to their own data ecosystem and turn this into Health Coins that can be traded. So, regardless of how we choose to share data about our fitness or lifestyle, technology is allowing us to take more control over our data and in some cases, even be rewarded for it.

 

An easy mistake

As technology continues to evolve, so do the opportunities to improve healthcare. It’s an easy mistake to blame technology for the negative themes and consequence surfaced as part of programmes like Black Mirror and increasingly in the media. However in reality, technology is only the driving force behind these. By focusing on positive changes within the healthcare sector, I wanted to demonstrate that it’s how people choose to use and interact with technology that brings consequences, both positive and negative. So, whilst technology has some level of control over each of us, we all have the power to change that – how often, when and why we use it. Keeping that front of mind will help to ensure technology continues to bring with it positive change. Change that is able to improve people’s quality of life for the better.

 

* According to the Q3 2016 Global Web Index Fitness Fanatics report