The Digital Doctor Will See You Now
Mobile health is a pandemic-driven change that could benefit everyone.
The pandemic has driven countless changes in behavior, lifestyles, working patterns, and our values. Many of us are taking a keener interest in our health than before and we’re using the technology in our pockets to help keep on top of our wellbeing. Mobile health, or m-health, is a growing market that already hit $60 billion in 2022 and is predicted to top $300 billion by 2030.
We know that the sooner we seek help with an illness, the better the prospects for a satisfactory outcome. Despite this, many of us, upon noticing any unusual signs, are inclined to “wait and see.” That’s usually less than ideal and sometimes has dire consequences. M-health not only permits better self-awareness by enabling continuous monitoring of our own vital signs, but can also overcome procrastination by automatically reporting any worrying signs as soon as they become apparent. A suitable response and – if necessary – a care plan can then be configured quickly, leading to faster recovery. Our devices can effectively take us to the (digital) doctor at the first sign of trouble. This should contribute to better health and longer lives for everyone. It may also reduce the overall load on healthcare services by helping more people avoid acute conditions that can be costly and time consuming to treat.
It’s also clear that m-health will lead to an explosion in the quantity of potentially sensitive personal data gathered into the systems that manage our care. This is necessary to accumulate digital knowledge regarding the indicators for various conditions, so that systems can become progressively better at detecting illnesses in their early stages and recommending the best course of action. Moreover, this knowledge will be based on real case data and therefore should be accurate and unbiased.
On the other hand, automated collection of personal health-related data raises questions about privacy that need careful handling. There will likely need to be a cultural shift, or perhaps a generational shift, before automation becomes widely accepted. Surveys suggest that about one-third of people today would be happy to share such data, while the remainder would be more guarded. Also, care delivery traditionally comes with the “human touch.” For many, this provides essential comfort and reassurance. It will take time for automated systems to gain acceptance. Advocates for automation will point to the potential for easier and faster access to services, shorter wait times, and fewer instances of misdiagnosis due to human error. There is also a civic aspect to sharing health data that helps automated care systems to learn and hence support patients better.
We can probably expect younger generations to accept more readily that a machine will analyze their data in the first instance and suggest the most appropriate action. Of course, the human touch must remain detectable and will likely provide oversight and guidance, intervening where necessary.
Now that it’s possible to monitor vital signs continuously, and so identify trends early to determine the best response, there is a clear parallel with condition monitoring of industrial equipment. In the same way that an early warning of any need for adjustment or minor repair to a machine can help minimize disruption in the factory, condition monitoring for people could help us all stay healthier for longer and get the treatment we need at a time that’s convenient. Maybe even before any symptoms become apparent.
While we, as technology fans, can celebrate the many innovations currently happening throughout this sector, we must also acknowledge that the medical field is traditionally not open to disruptors. Changing practices, and acceptance of new approaches, is likely to take a long time.
For now, we can say that there is an uptick in the numbers of people interested in monitoring their health and diet. With instances of diabetes increasing worldwide, particularly Type 2 diabetes, new and less invasive ways of measuring blood insulin and glucose are becoming available. Traditional and inconvenient pin-prick tests can now, thankfully, be replaced with sensors worn as a patch. The data from these patches can drive automatic prompts when an injection is necessary or enable an app to make dietary recommendations to help manage the condition.
These and other improved medical sensors are part of a market for data-collection devices that is growing quickly, currently at about 16% CAGR. They are an intrinsic part of the m-health revolution, the perception layer that feeds our smartphones, which then handle data aggregation, filtering, and connecting with healthcare providers.
High-tech industries, of course, are deeply involved in developing smart sensors, which need to be small, low-power, minimally invasive, and comfortable to wear. We in the PCB business are familiar with issues like bio-compatibility and the properties of flexible substrates that can be conformed to wear against the skin, or folded or rolled for installation in a larger wearable device.
Engineers and scientists must continue to innovate in this space. Some important requirements include improving the user friendliness and usability of devices and sensors for m-health. I was intrigued recently by the possibilities created by a new shape-shifting haptic display developed at the Max Planck Institute in Stuttgart and the University of Colorado Boulder, which could enable us to digitize touch, replicate the response of human tissue, and even automatically convert text to braille.
Although – as with attitudes to data sharing – we can expect younger generations to be the most accepting of wearable medical technology, it’s true that we tend to need more care as we become older. While there is clearly always scope for improvement, accepting the role of technology and automation in our healthcare is a step we must all be prepared to take along the road to better wellbeing.