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Checking your vitals: Wearable technology is changing the way we monitor health

By Angela Haggerty, Reporter

November 12, 2014 | 6 min read

Mobile technology has changed the way we interact with each other, but also ourselves, with mobiles and wearable devices enabling us to keep track of our health – measuring exercise, heart rate and calorie intake. Angela Haggerty takes a look at how this may disrupt the health sector, as part of a series of features around The Day Before Tomorrow film series produced by The Drum.

Google has long been ridiculed as the single worst tool to utilise when individuals have a health complaint. Whether it’s a headache, a strange rash or some mildly annoying mysterious pain, if Google’s search results are anything to go by almost everything is a symptom of cancer. The digital access to knowledge has thus far successfully struck fear into the public and filled increasingly irritated doctors’ surgeries.

But with the emergence of wearable and mobile technology, digital and healthcare may finally be finding some harmonious ground. The smartphone has already become a health monitoring tool for many; every aspect of diet and exercise can be tracked, and wearable devices can keep a close check on users’ vitals.

Rather than a self-diagnosis tool when something goes wrong, technology is more and more about maintaining health and preventing problems. In turn, people are becoming more knowledgeable about how their bodies work and how to live healthy lifestyles, and it’s inevitable as technology continues to evolve that its users will gain even more control over their bodies.

And the next step, according to the experts, is the emergence of the ‘quantified self’.

“I think there’s an enormous opportunity for technology to improve health and affect the health industry in the next few years,” Dr David Cox of Headspace explains in the health episode of The Day Before Tomorrow series produced by The Drum. “The thing that I’m particularly excited about is what people call ‘quantified self’.

“So, this is about putting sensors and devices on people so that they’re generating data about themselves, and they’re able to interact with that data, so they can know more about what they’re doing, know more about their health, know more about whether they’re doing the kinds of things, like walking or exercising, that everybody kind of knows that you should do but frequently don’t do enough of.”

However, Cox adds, technology will only be a truly useful development in personal healthcare if it’s used in conjunction with more traditional knowledge about health – and users should be careful to avoid allowing it to become a daily reminder of areas in which they’re not working hard enough.

“The other side of it is, if they don’t change their behaviour, if that’s not a powerful enough prompt to them to actually change their behaviour, haven’t you just increased their anxiety?” he asks. “Now, for some people I’m sure fear is a motivator, but it’s not a very nice motivator.

“There’s going to be huge leaps and bounds in how this affects the way we look after our own health but I think we need to be intelligent about how we use it and not think it’s the only thing that we need to do, the only tool that we need, to appropriately change people’s behaviour so that their health gets better.”

Rosie Yakob, founder of innovation consultancy Genius Steals, warns that the industry should be careful to avoid technology becoming a barrier between patient and doctor through information sharing, something that has already been broached by Apple through its health app which has the potential to contact a user’s doctor if it picks up something abnormal.

“When you think about wearables and healthcare there is a little bit of a scary zone,” she says. “I mean, how much do you want your health provider to know?

“If you are incredibly active and you’re going to yoga all the time then you might say ‘great, I want my healthcare provider to know that and I’m willing to give them access to this information so that I might get a discount’.

“But for people who have less healthy life choices, or maybe even your wearable just doesn’t register activity that you choose to do, it then becomes a place where you might get penalised for something that previously was not even factored into it.”

However, Beverly Bryant, director of strategic systems and technology at the NHS, argues that enabling patients more access to their own medical records could allow them to use information recorded by their healthcare professionals to better inform how they use technology to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“It would be a step too far to try and pull the information that people hold personally and put that into their medical record,” she says. “Because actually, that medical record is really about an interaction between you and your healthcare professional.

“But there’s no reason why it couldn’t go the other way. If you wanted to help manage your condition or manage your lifestyle, count how many steps you were taking in a day, look at what your diet was, and just count your calories for example, there’s nothing to stop you actually pulling information from your medical record to help inform that.”

The digital potential of healthcare has moved on from the simple days of self-diagnosis on Google, and wearables may well double up in future as constant health monitoring tools that serve a medically significant role in preventing illnesses prompted by poor lifestyle decisions.

The Drum’s six-part documentary series The Day Before Tomorrow, produced in association with SapientNitro, explores digital disruption across six sectors. Over the next few weeks we will publish features on each of the films. You can watch the episode focused on health below.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 12 November issue.

The Day Before Tomorrow Exercise NHS

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