Tech-like wearables can quickly identify medical issues and push us to act healthier.
As smart devices get smarter, more and more people go to them for more and more things. Take health and fitness. Related apps were downloaded 2.48 billion times in 2021, while the promise of being able to monitor and improve our health has been one of the key factors driving the explosion in sales of wearables like smartwatches in recent years. Some people have started talking about this type of technology as the new medical frontier, with apps poised to improve and even replace current treatment options for a range of issues. But do they live up to this hype?
Because health apps are not currently regulated to the same high standards as pharmaceuticals and healthcare professionals, the effectiveness of many current offerings on the Apple App Store or Google Play is questionable. But if we just look at the health apps that are built on actual expertise and properly tested for effectiveness, there are some clear benefits to using this type of technology.
The first is that the continuous tracking of data about your health makes it easier for both the user and the technician to identify health problems at an early stage. Smartwatches could detect things like pregnancy, Covid-19 and organ failure before symptoms appear. As a general rule of thumb, the sooner both a patient and their healthcare system know something is wrong, the better the options and prognosis, and the lower the cost of care.
The second benefit is that this technology is really good at getting people to change their behavior for the better. When we see a notification on our screen, we’re much more likely to increase our steps or take our pills, especially if the app has a gamification aspect. Basically, that’s because the way our brain responds to the challenges and rewards inherent in a game-like structure makes us more likely to engage in healthy behaviors, whether to enjoy the joy of success or to avoid the disappointment of not being successful.
The third advantage of health technology is its adaptability. The great diversity of humanity is a minor problem for the medical industry in general, because it is difficult to develop treatments that work for everyone. But apps designed to adapt to a person can reduce this problem. For example, there is wearable technology that tracks the gait of stroke patients and then generates music with a matching beat. In medical studies, this technology appears to have a major positive effect on these patients’ ability to walk again.
However, there are some worrying downsides to health technology. One is the possibility of the data and devices being used in nefarious ways. Hacked health apps could provide a pathway for some truly horrible things, including invasion of privacy, extortion, and physical harm (especially when apps are connected to medical devices that keep their owners healthy and alive). In addition to this risk, there is a fear that if insurers or employers were able to obtain unencrypted health data, they could use it to discriminate against sick people and impose further financial and health costs on those who are already disadvantaged.
Another major concern is how the cost of the technology might make it inaccessible to some, and how this might contribute to existing health inequalities, where wealthier people tend to receive better standards of care. There are counterarguments to this concern: much of the hardware needed is getting cheaper over time, and some of the most beneficial apps are subsidized and offered on prescription by healthcare providers such as private insurers or the NHS. But as things stand, it’s still wealthier people in wealthier countries who are most likely to own things like smartphones and smartwatches, as well as being able to afford the latest and most sophisticated versions of wearables and health apps. Also, of course, richer people are also more likely to have health insurance, be able to skip work to see a doctor, have the resources to act on health advice like changing your diet, and generally have access to all the other things that help translate that Translating potential health technology benefits into actual health improvements.
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