One day illness will be detected, diagnosed and treated in the home. Devices will know us better than we know ourselves as they sample and assess blood, biometrics and everything in between. We’ll then be dispensed, at our convenience, customised medicine that is designed around our individual body chemistry.
This was the ultimate vision behind WIRED Health, the annual gathering of technologists and health professionals in London. While other industries use technology to create and transmit data (such as retail, which tracks everything from spending habits to eyeball movement along supermarket shelves), it was clear from this event that health tech is more about revealing and interpreting the incredible amount of information already locked away in our bodies. The 100,000 Genomes Project, for example, estimates raw data from a human genome (or one line of genetic code) is roughly 200GB alone.
Technology democratizes healthcare
Much of the overriding optimism in health tech stems from the fact that technology is now delivering healthcare directly to the hands of the people. No longer will treatments be hidden away on the top shelves of pharmacies; increasingly, they are becoming available to consumers, aiding the self-diagnosis of symptoms from affordable devices.
Take virtual reality (VR), for instance, which played a major role at the conference. WIRED Health’s differentiating factor from other events was that it demonstrated how VR has real purpose besides recreation. Currently, it’s in use for stroke recovery and restoring sight. Add smartphones to the mix, and there’s a whole host of opportunities to make therapies more accessible through consumer technology.
Partnerships breed opportunity
Start-ups are leading the way in applying technology to find truly personalized healthcare solutions. The EY Startup Stage at WIRED Health was bursting with great ideas that solve age-old problems, improve processes and make the lives of those suffering from long-term illnesses more manageable. However, the challenges many start-ups will face are two-fold. Firstly, many don’t have the resources to navigate the regulatory environment, especially when compared with their much larger counterparts. Secondly, funding for what is still a developing health tech industry is hard to come by. On the other hand, these obstacles present opportunity for stakeholders from across the spectrum to partner, build and develop with start-ups to bring products to market more quickly and efficiently.
Health tech’s biggest challenge is trust
Computational power, coupled with Moore’s Law (featured in numerous presentations), applications of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning will soon simplify the assessment of massive data sets. But health tech without the appropriate consent to use personal data is like a Lamborghini without petrol.
In the health space, without personal data we can’t recognize specific tumors or disease types, or create personalized therapies to treat them. We can’t understand why some drugs in clinical trials succeed while others fail or shortcut the current 12-year timeline for drug development. Any brand or organization seeking to influence people’s health and well-being will need to work together to ensure personal data through trust.
The promise of data is significant, but fragile. Although legislation such as the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is being introduced to address these issues, the way in which personal data is being used continues to divide opinion. For example, news of Google DeepMind tracking medical records has been met with both optimism and concern. These opinions are brewed in an environment where the four major institutions – business, NGO, government and media – are already facing a crisis of trust, as revealed in the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer.
Trust and transparency are vital to inform and reassure us – the consumers – about health tech. We need to understand why our data is so crucial to the future of healthcare, how it will be used, what measures are in place to secure and protect it, and who is accountable.
Balancing regulation and innovation
Regulatory bodies are introducing new guidance all the time to ensure consistency in the use of personal data. In addition to GDPR, in 2016, both the European Commission and UK government produced updated regulations for medical devices that gather personal data. But while many (and perhaps particularly those from the tech industry who are comparatively unfamiliar with operating within a regulated environment) regard these regulations as a barrier, they are necessary to build trust. In the words of a physician at WIRED Health, “When I prescribe or recommend a medicine to my patient, I can rely on a wealth of well-documented, independently reviewed clinical evidence. This isn’t the case for technology such as apps or devices which may well support my patient’s quality of life but there simply isn’t the evidence for that.”
Companies and industry must view regulation as an opportunity to build trust and fuel innovation. When they do, we can all begin to realize the full potential of health technology.
What do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges for health tech?
Lou Dalton is associate director, London Healthcare.
Symon Madry is account director, London Technology.
Jermaine Dallas is a writer, London Technology.