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Putting patients behind the wheel: The future of personal health management

Melanie Kilgore Hill
Sep 29, 2016 - reading time 5 mins

By Melanie Kilgore-Hill

Melanie Kilgore-Hill is a freelance medical journalist who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a features writer for Nashville Medical News and has covered the medical industry for more than 15 years, both as a journalist and as a hospital public relations specialist. Hill holds a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville.

By Melanie Kilgore-HillRead less
Hit any gym and you’re bound to see a myriad of colorful fitness trackers clocking steps, heart rates, and, once home, sleep. In fact, the global wearable fitness tracker market is projected to hit an estimated $5.4 billion by 2019.
Man runing in park pathway with old trees

The technology behind these fitness trackers has far surpassed anything our parents could have imagined, and leaves us asking, “Where do we go from here?” Rachel Maguire, research director of the Health Futures Lab Institute for the Future, said the question is no longer whether or not we’re capable of developing the technology to track personal health data, but what we do with those numbers.

 

“Trackers won’t help without a way to help people improve their overall health,” Maguire said. “We run the risk of a future of just fire-hosing people with information about poor health practices they already know about.”

New technology = new territory

Armed with access to real-time personal health data, today’s consumers are behind the wheel of tomorrow’s healthcare marketplace, and they’re racing down an unchartered road. That’s because early adapters seem to rely more on self-diagnosis and less on traditional medical settings, creating a complete paradigm shift from generations past.

 

“For many, smart phones are now a core resource in their health ecosystem,” Maguire said. “But how many users are actually sharing that data with a provider, and how will physicians integrate that data in a meaningful way?”

 

That’s the question researchers are still scrambling to answer, as new gadgets and apps hit the market at a dizzying pace. However, the interest in using personal technology for self-care will only grow, as will innovation and technology available to providers. That means tomorrow’s medical community will have a clearer path to connect rapidly evolving technology with the digital transformation happening in our everyday lives: Essentially, the high-tech tools available to providers and consumers will merge with the single goal of improving outcomes. The result will be a complete reformulation of how healthcare is delivered.

Health management by the numbers

According to one American study2, researchers found 165,000 published fitness and medical apps were downloaded more than 3 billion times in 2015. Health and fitness apps comprised 56% of related app store offerings, with medical apps making up about 44%. There are a growing number for chronic disease management, which represents about 12% of apps. Within that group there are apps that claim to help obesity management (29%), followed by diabetes (20%) and cancer (19%).

 

But is access to technology and data enough to improve medical outcomes?

The 2016 Philips Future Health Indexstates that, “across the age groups, many patients are not habitually monitoring key health indicators despite the proliferation of mobile and wearable devices making it easier to do so. Less than half of patients regularly keep track of their weight and diet (47% and 42%, respectively) and only one-third (34%) regularly keep track of exercise routines. Older patients are more likely to cite lack of motivation as the main reason they aren’t more proactive about their health (55+: 36% versus 18-34: 25%), while patients under the age of 55 are more likely to say that they don’t have the time (18-24: 25%; 34-54: 26%; 55+: 12%).
While steering providers and increasingly independent patients onto the same digital pathway will prove a long-term challenge, there’s no question tracking is allowing for better personal health management, from telemedicine (phone-a-doc services available at a nominal fee) to eHealth programs. Doctors are also recognizing the benefit of fitness trackers in encouraging physical activity, which can significantly reduce a person’s risk of countless diagnoses including heart disease. Wearable devices like affordable wireless blood pressure cuffs can help cardiac patients set goals, monitor progress and track exercise patterns, and send those stats directly to their providers through websites or apps.
“Technology won’t be the barrier,” Maguire said of tomorrow’s healthcare landscape. “People are getting access through non-medical lines to whatever tools work for them for whatever problem. From stress and meditation to tracking their kids’ insulin, there’s a whole marketplace of connected care offering.”
Saleswoman with smart phone fitness tracker on treadmill in home gym equipment store

Science (Non)Fiction

Recent headlines offer a glimpse into the future of personal health management. In 2013, scientists from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) developed an implant that allows blood to be analyzed from within the body, with results transmitted wirelessly to a computer. The following year, Philips showcased a medical wearable for patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The patch continuously gathers diagnostic stats like heart rate, respiratory function and physical activity, transfers data to the patient’s mobile device and uploads it to a cloud-based healthcare repository. The low-cost sensors monitor chronic medical conditions in real time and are a part of the company’s growing wearables line for medical and fitness use. The patch is similar to another advancement in wearable electronics: an ultrathin wearable tattoo capable of measuring brain, heart and muscle activity. A similar “e-skin” product, developed by engineers from the University of Tokyo, measures heart rate and blood-oxygen levels. Researchers say the ultimate goal for smart skins is to create a display screen directly on the person’s body, forgoing the need for painful pricks and pricey equipment.

 

“It’s an exciting time for those in biomed to explore new capabilities with smart connected objects in, on, or around our bodies,” Maguire said. “This is the decade where we start figuring out how to apply technology into our health and in meaningful ways. We’ll spend the next decade trying to figure out how to integrate that information with clinical care.”

 

As human-centered diagnostics makes healthcare less reliant on invasive medical procedures and hospital stays, tomorrow’s doctor-patient relationship will become a true partnership that puts the patient in the epicenter of “patient centered care,” and forces providers to share diagnostic capabilities that were once highly regulated.

 

Ultimately, the move toward patient-centered care means a healthcare environment where the patient is in the driver’s seat, with providers and researchers keeping a cautiously optimistic eye on the road.