Smart Healthcare Trends: Part 3, Preventative Healthcare

For Part 1 and 2 in this series where I look at trends in Smart Healthcare please click here and here.

Preventative Healthcare

There is a growing trend towards preventative measures especially as technology advances enable a new generation of smart healthcare. The vision portrayed by Rochester Universities “Smart Medical Home” in 2004 is one that controls everything from the “nutritious meals” to the “high-tech first aid kits that can diagnose and cure even the most life-threatening injuries and ailments”. Physician Alice Pentland, Medical Director of the centre is quoted as saying:

“Finding a cure for disease is the best option. But making sure people don’t get sick or identifying disease early, when it can be most easily treated, are the next best options”.

This early experiment into preventative healthcare implements a personal medical advisor with speech-recognition for conversing with, skin-disorder diagnosis through the use of a camera matrix, a gait monitor to detect walking abnormalities that may be a precursor to a stroke or Parkinson’s disease, and other such systems.

Building up a complete picture of an inhabitant’s medical state needs a whole host of personal data which can lead to privacy concerns. As with any monitoring solution, the data itself needs to be closely controlled and access restricted. Perhaps some of the most intimate data is a person’s genome which, thanks to reductions in the cost of gene sequencing, is now available to anyone. Once the domain of a laboratory, a person’s genotype can be data-mined for as little as £125 to discover, from what the website says, a person’s risk to inherited conditions, their response to particular drugs, genetic risk factors, and even a disposition to genetic traits such as lactose intolerance or male pattern baldness. The home can combine all these information sources to help prevent certain adverse conditions. If a home-owner has asthma or other airborne allergies, sensors could detect a high pollen count and automatically close windows or advise the occupant on the risk of venturing outside; diabetes suffers can be instructed on the right food choices to be made based on the homes recognition of available foods; exercise can be advised based on a lack of detected movement; the possibilities are vast.

Unless restricted by some ailment, most patients are ambulatory with means using wearable sensors to track motion and other variables is a useful addition to preventative healthcare. According to Clifton et al in 2014 there has been little work on mining the data to uncover potential future patient issues which is the main issue with today’s solutions. During their research they trialled their multi-sensor solution in a medical environment with 200 patients and an average hospitalization stay of 9 days. It should be noted that of the 200 patients they studied many actually removed their wearable sensors despite being told of the potential benefits. The main reason was that for certain sensors:

the current technological implementation was rejected as being inconvenient, uncomfortable, or too intrusive.

According to the feedback, the ECG sensor was particular uncomfortable for prolonged wear and finger-mounted pulse oximeters not practical. Finally, network connectivity problems, short battery lives, massive data sets, and patient forgetfulness to reattach the devices once removed plagued the final results. Despite all this the study did prove that patient deterioration and predictive monitoring was possible to a certain degree and further studies in this area should be pursued. The software-side of the solution, using machine learning, is relatively mature but todays sensor hardware is lacking.

There are commercial wearables being sold that claim to implement many of the sensors that the medical grade devices used in this study but Clifton claims they are just not accurate enough to avoid false-positive alerts. This study paints a rosy picture of using wearables for predictive monitoring as a form of preventative healthcare but technological advances need to catch-up with software before a more widespread adoption can occur. In the meantime, the wearables market is exploding with year-on-year near double digit growth and, according to IDTechEx, this trend is set to continue. As is often the case, combining data sources produces a more holistic picture and with wearables and the Smart Home combining the dataset becomes richer for preventative intervention.

Any look at Preventative Health should also take into consideration diet, with many of today’s ailments directly linked to an unhealthy lifestyle and eating habits. The Smart Appliances of the future can help with monitoring and suggesting healthy eating habits, from smart fridges to smart dining trays and a multi-faceted approach to prevention will be the best approach with the Smart Home at the center of this. There are many use cases where the home can help the occupant make preventative decisions and it is likely that this will be a popular future trend as more technology enters the home.