Health apps and wearables changing the game

4 Mar 2016

The future of health looks more and more digital, with the number of apps and wearables dedicated to the topic soaring at the minute.

A new report in the US shows that consumers are diving wrist and phone-first into health apps and wearables, with 33pc of mobile consumers (up from 16pc in 2014) now engaged in the new wave of medtech.

Prior to this decade, medtech was all about stents, surgical implants and other tangible devices that doctors used. Now, though, it’s stretching into the consumer world.

With apps that monitor sleep, movement, diet, energy, medication, symptoms, fitness etc, a significant amount of health research can now be done on the fly, by users, in real time.

‘We’ve made life the laboratory for this study’

Enter Watson

This week, IBM’s Watson positioned itself firmly in the health research field, with SleepHealth debuting as the first ResearchKit app and study to support its ‘health cloud’ software.

It’s big business, too, as Apple (obviously, given it’s on ResearchKit), J&J and Medtronic are partnered up for the project, investigating the connection between sleep habits and health.

“We’ve made life the laboratory for this study,” said Carl Stepnowsky of the University of California, whose thinking is quite clearly of a crowdsourcing exercise that poses perhaps more questions than answers.

Last year, when ResearchKit was launched, the number of iOS users that signed up was incredible. But, research must be objective, which requires quite a lot of planning.

Bias is bias

“Just collecting lots of information about people — who may or may not have a particular disease, and may or may not represent the typical patient — could just add noise and distraction,” said professor Lisa Schwartz to Bloomberg at the time. “Bias times a million is still bias.”

Ages of consent can probably be dodged quite easily, also, the average iPhone user is far better off than someone on Android or even more well off than someone not on a smart device at all, so demographics are fairly skewed.

However, considering the consistent measurements that certain apps can avail of (24-hour cardio monitoring, exercise readings etc) the potential there is significant. Add to that Accenture’s findings that device and app ownership is on the up and you get into a large macro testbed area.

“Digital tools are empowering patients to take charge of their health and interact with the system on their own terms,” said Kaveh Safavi, who leads Accenture’s health practice globally. “Healthcare providers will need to weave digital capabilities into the core of their business model so that it becomes embedded in everything they do.”

Speeding up

With IBM’s Watson heavily focused on the field, and wrist-worn smart devices enjoying a fine beginning in the industry, maybe studies are about to speed up significantly.

Of course, as is the restriction of this current digital revolution, working out ways to process all this additional data will be another challenge entirely.

Though Rob High, chief technology officer for Watson, recently spoke of one of the ways big data can speed up medical diagnosis, by filtering journals and tailoring doctors’ notes to fit a specific patient.

“We try to find the 10 out of a million patients that are just like this patient, and not just based on age, race and sex, but based on 100, 1,000 or even 5,000 variables that define who that person is because that then becomes a good basis for making predictions about how that patient is going to respond to the cancer, and to the treatment.”

If processing of information can keep pace with the gathering of such, then we might be on to a winner.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic