Medicine unplugged

baby with owletHealth is universal and, perversely, so too is our deteriorating health problem. The developing world has obvious health shortfalls and problems but ‘Globesity’ has entered the developed world’s Zeitgeist as testimony that we’re killing ourselves through our own lifestyle choices.

That’s one sound reason why health will be the next great tech revolution. Yahoo’s super-smart CEO, Marissa Mayer also serves on the board at Jawbone, makers of the iconic wireless mobile headset and the Jambox wireless speakers. Jawbone also make the Up, a £100 wristband that monitors your activity and plugs into your PC to tell you how you’ve slept, how far you’ve travelled etc etc. There are several such bands, watches and phone apps on the market these days.

Wearable tech is a new sector – think Samsung watch, Google Glass, Nike Fuel Band – and there’s an evolution of what some call “ubiquitous computing,”or what Cisco christened “the internet of everything.”  A recent Credit Suisse report on the rise of the wearable technology market indicates it has hit “an inflection point” and will have “a significant and pervasive impact on the economy,” and will reach $30-$50 billion over the next five years.

The obvious revenue spinner is in the health & fitness sector: monitor your sleep pattern, improve your 10k run time or track your distance covered on the squash court and push yourself to new personal bests. But global health is the real winner. Wellness and sickness prevention could become a day-to-day reality.

If the internet of everything dovetails with health then the story becomes so much more compelling than Facebook updates, maps on your wrist and adjusting your home thermostat while sitting in the pub. If you think of Google as a data science company first, and a colourful profit behemoth second, then health has to feature as one of their future’s core moonshots. The fact that Google’s Android operating system is free lends itself to this global ubiquity perfectly – Apple or Microsoft sell theirs and that simply wont scale in developing worlds.

We could group upload our data to share our health as nations. It could push whole sections of society to change their lifestyle – we know full well that exercise alone can impact our physiology massively. This could be a Holy Grail moment. We can (and surely will?) change behaviour with knowledge. A simple data example is how Google have published flu trends by illustrating map-based global health data for years.

Of course, with over 3 billion active smartphones, self-monitoring and self-diagnosis is wide open to universal access. The phone becomes the gateway from measuring to actual analysis and prescription. Ugly headsets and strapped on boxes will give way to blue toothed jewellery.

“We’re looking at $4.4 trillion in [U.S.] health care costs over the next decade related to heart disease and diabetes,” says Rahman, CEO of Jawbone. “This is totally preventable” if people get the right information. Concerned and pushy parents will love it (monitor your baby’s heart, breathing, digestive system and rest?). Philanthropists will sponsor it.

Self-monitoring is becoming part of medicine and it could become transformative as we’d monitor and detect ‘at risk’ now. With our health system hurting, surely this can ease some of the strain in doctors’ surgeries as we self-prescribe on some of life’s less dramatic problems. (Hands up all those guys who don’t go to the surgery regardless of how ill they feel?) Fast-forward a decade or so and perhaps your health insurance policy or your employer will demand you wear one? What happens when critical mass is achieved?

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