Is it possible to change the behavior of the entire healthcare system by leveraging personalized data?
The SXSW session titled Personalized Health: Coming to a Screen Near You, was an interactive discussion led by Michael Olaya, the CEO of Pictrition and Taylor Pechacek, Product Developer at Maxwell Health.
The speakers examined the current state and future promise of personal health tracking. Most of the discussion was based on wearables and smartphone apps—a category that continues to grow at breakneck speed. Recognizing the enormous potential of these devices (largely unrealized at this point), the discussion centered around current barriers to their adoption, and what the future could hold once we overcome those barriers.
There were a significant number of practicing physicians in the audience, which added real-world perspective to the discussion. The problem with many wearables and apps that track and collect data, is that they are usually developed in a vacuum—disconnected from input by healthcare providers. As one physician put it, the devices are developed by healthy 30-year-olds and worn by other healthy 30-year-olds. While that is an overstatement, it is true that those who need these devices most (such as obese diabetics) aren’t generally the people actively using them.
It’s logical that healthcare providers will eventually be able to prescribe certain wearables and apps for their patients, and that reimbursement for the devices will be available. System integration with a patient’s Electronic Medical Records (EMRs) could significantly change the way a physician interacts with his or her patients.
However, there are barriers to these ambitions. Physicians are already overwhelmed by the amount of data they have to process, and often lack the time required to have the meaningful discussions with their patients that would allow them to take advantage of the data. If the ongoing struggle to incorporate EMRs into their practices is any indication of how today’s doctors are able to cope with the onslaught of technology, we shouldn’t expect them to enthusiastically embrace the learning curve for wearables and smartphone technology anytime soon.
Several participants stated the need for a protocol for clinical trials before physicians can responsibly endorse, much less prescribe, wearables. But clinical trials are on the near-term horizon. Coincidentally, the March 10th issue of the New York Times reported that a smartphone calorie-counting app called My Meal Mate is “perhaps the only calorie-tracking app to be tested in randomized clinical trials.”
Surely, many more will follow. When this practice becomes the norm, adoption could rapidly increase. In addition, credibility for wearables and health apps will most likely only come as a result of physician peer reviews and published data.
There are ethical considerations that will have to be worked out. If a physician is truly connected to his or her patients through wearables and apps, what happens when a patient experiences a health-related event and the physician doesn’t respond in a timely manner? Is the physician negligent in that case?
And then there are technical barriers to overcome. The vast number of devices and apps don’t yet adhere to development standards and standardized platforms. However, in the near future, multiple devices will probably be aggregated on platforms (several software providers are already well down that road).
There are some significant barriers to adoption by a wider audience in need of monitoring, analyzing, and reporting their health challenges. However, there is a groundswell of interest from employers who want to lower health insurance costs, health insurance companies, and physicians who are hungry for meaningful tools to keep their patients aware of their conditions and compliant with their treatment. When these barriers are overcome, the quantified self may become the norm.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Once we overcome some key obstacles, the potential health benefits of wearables and apps in the treatment of chronic diseases is enormous.
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