Will apps be the embodiment of future healthcare?


Tech and applications are starting to acquire an increasingly effective ameliorative influence. (Image Source: UA Tech)

Today’s healthcare services face unprecedented pressure. Population growth, lifestyle choices and geographic disconnects are converging to yield often overwhelming complexities.

Fortunately, tech and applications are starting to acquire an increasingly effective ameliorative influence.

The game is changing fast, whether it is organisations adapting and streamlining processes to improve data access and patient care, or patients themselves looking at ways to better understand and manage their well-being.

The recent F5-commissioned Future of Apps report by the Foresight Factory is a vivid case in point, highlighting important trends that will affect the future of healthcare, including how embeddable products (i.e. implants of RFID or NFC chips) can transform how we monitor and take care of our bodies.

Many startling use-cases are already coming to fruition.
Kernel, a new “human intelligence” company, for example, is developing neuroprosthesis that can “mimic, repair and improve cognition”. The company aims to create an implantable chip to sit in the hippocampus region of the brain and electrically stimulate certain neurons. By replicating the way brain cells communicate, it could help those with dementia or a brain injury to create long-term memories again.

Neil Harbisson, Founder of the Cyborg Foundation and Future of Apps report contributor is at the absolute cutting-edge of human optimisation or ‘transhumanism’. He countered the problem of only being able to see in shades of grey by becoming the first person in the world to implant an antenna in his skull. Today, he can perceive visible and invisible colours, such as infrareds and ultraviolets via sound waves. Harbisson is currently focused on designing a new ‘organ’, which will be controlled via an external app and bring a further dimension to his senses.

While this level of modification may seem extreme to some, the rise of 3D-printed biological materials is set to dramatically increase our possibilities to augment our anatomy in the coming years.

The Future of Apps flags some South African receptivity in this respect. 34% of surveyed South African consumers indicated they are very interested in technology like night vision contact lenses (with 29% stating they were “quite interested”), whereas, 42% agreed they are not currently reaching their full potential in life.

Responding to market changes
In the short term, we expect to see applications span the gap between our bodies and technology, enabling organisations and individuals to better understand their health and the impact this will have on treatments or lifestyle.

According to the Future of Apps, 49% of South Africans indicate they would like to understand the impact of the dietary choices they make today on their future health. This rises to 57% among Gen Y (those born in the 80’s and 90’s).

Also cited in the report is Medtronic, which has been leveraging IBM’s Watson Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform to develop a cognitive app called Sugar.IQ. The app taps into around 10 000 anonymous patient records to detect patterns and predict diabetic events three to four hours before they occur. The result is a personal assistant that helps patients better understand how their behaviour affects glucose levels in real time with a 75% to 86% accuracy rate.
This kind of technology has considerable implications for a country like South Africa where, according to the Centre for Diabetes and Endocrinology, as many as 4.6 million people are living with the disease.

Diabetes is a formidable challenge across the continent, with the International Diabetes Federation predicting that the 14 million people in Africa currently living with diabetes will double by 2040. An app like Sugar.IQ may be in its infancy in terms of efficacy but it already has the potential to save lives.
Future prognoses

Hardly a day goes by without arrays of shiny new kit and solutions coming online; recent innovations gaining the “smart” prefix include everything from diapers to sensors tracking whether medication is adequately ingested and absorbed.

Where we once only monitored, we will soon be able to predict and counsel before issues arise. Where high-tech care and consultancy were once confined to the clinic, they are now entering our homes and reaching developing countries from afar.

Based on discussions with business leaders in the healthcare sector, many organisations are only just starting to reap the benefits of applications and are still concerned about the resulting security implications of moving too quickly and opening themselves up to threats, such as when Barnaby Jack successfully hacked into a pacemaker.

Looking ahead, access to growing sets of personal data, combined with the ability to process and manage such information locally, will create new opportunities for consumers to become gatekeepers over their own information.

The challenge for healthcare providers is to master and secure the network, integrate context-aware technology and tame tsunamis of big data. Imagine the widespread roll-out of electronic medical records alone and being able to tap into the power of cloud computing.

It is essential that both healthcare organisations and technology vendors keep pace with the step-changes ahead and commit to plans aligned with applications’ future innovation trajectory.

The prognosis is positive; these are transformative developments in every sense of the word and they are starting to happen today. [The Internet of] Things — and life as we know it – can only get better.

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