You are the final frontier for the Internet of Things (IoT). Imagine tattoos or pills that populate your body with nanoscale sensors and actuators. These devices would travel to key areas of your body and provide a constant stream of data on blood sugar level, hormones, oxygen exchange, blood pressure, heart rate – virtually any measurement that would be part of a routine exam, along with what might be needed to detect emergent problems.
In fact, the ability to detect markers for infection, developing cancers, fatigue, depression – and report back on these – may someday be expected. And the range of possibilities would expand as, on the one hand, expectations of health and health concerns took in environmental data, history, and your DNA, and, on the other hand, the relationships between readings and the actual datamining of people, led to the discovery of patterns that expose irregularities that are not currently recognized.
Ultimately, integrating our bodies into the Internet of things will challenge concepts of health, illness, privacy, public good, and what normal (especially vs. enhanced) means. I’ll get more into the social and community aspects in my next post.
Detectors and devices. While work is already underway to create biocompatible detectors and other technology, and smaller and smaller versions keep emerging, don’t expect an organ-homing pill or tattoo to be available soon. Most detection devices will be implantable only for acute needs (e.g., insulin pumps, pacemakers, rfid chips in Alzheimer’s patients).
These implantables point to a world where everyone will live with devices, but most medical detection is managed now from the outside. Sometimes, as with home blood pressure cuffs, thermometers, and blood glucose detectors, the user is active. In other cases, such as smart toilets and smartphone fitness accessories, the data may be taken en passant. More of the latter are likely to become part of our lives, incorporated into glasses, coffee cups, electric razors, and clothing.
In addition, data is likely to be gathered outside the home and the doctor’s office. A good example of this is the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program, which screens customers for high blood pressure, diabetes, and prostate cancer. Pharmacies are reaching further into health, and, I suspect, the role of gyms and spas in screening, gathering data, and even providing treatments will grow over the years as diagnostics become less expensive and more foolproof.
Getting personal. Along with more data gathering, the focus will change as environment, family history, and DNA analysis point toward what indicators (or sets of indicators) should be put in place to optimize health and detect problems early.
Drugs and bugs. In addition, healthcare devices are likely to become more involved in helping patients to get the most out of medications. Anyone who has had to “dial in” blood pressure or pain medication – which is often hit or miss as to dosage and which pharmaceuticals – can understand the advantages of having automated monitoring and data that can quickly lead to the best solution. And, as we come to understand ourselves as ecosystems of organisms (arguably over half our mass is other species) and how that protects us from infection, helps us digest, and even impacts our mental health, sampling the bacteria and other organisms found in the gut the bloodstream, and on the skin will be factored in to diagnosis and treatment.
Information and intervention. As is usually the case with IoT, the leading edge is populated by sensor technology. Pacemakers give jolts and insulin pumps adapt dosage, but most of the devices participating now, and in the near future, in the IoT are detecting, monitoring, and reporting data rather than acting on it. Putting actuators into a system can be tricky. It can be especially problematic in the world of health since mistakes can be costly, both in terms of causing harm to people and in terms of legal action. Reports of hackable heart-assist devices have led to real concerns about the risks of technologies. Providing the data to a healthcare professional and having that person take action is the safer alternative for now. Interventions are in the hands of people.
But that is likely to change over time as new opportunities emerge. As people without diagnosed illnesses become part of a smart world that looks to move beyond today’s definitions of health. First, they will receive more information that can allow them to make their own decisions. Later, they can decide to have devices that act to maintain health or even enhance performance.
But, of course, both the use of data and the decisions made in response may move from the individual to the community. And this subject will be part of the next post.