The future of health in a connected world

The coming wave of health technology is set to change the way you live—or keep you from dying.

By Michael Mendenhall

The coming wave of health technology is set to change the way you live—or keep you from dying. It would be quite reasonable to say that using wearable devices to monitor health and fitness parameters has gone mainstream. Let’s take a look at how smart tech is capable of way more than that.

In the medical world, the artificial pancreas is a unicorn, a still mythical device that could handle a seemingly magical task for diabetes patients: monitoring and regulating glucose levels in the body, despite the unpredictability of a person’s everyday health.

The artificial pancreas

In 2012, 29.1 million Americans had diabetes, up from 25.8 million in 2010, according to the latest available statistics from the American Diabetes Association. It remains the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, afflicting more than one in four seniors across America. For those with type 2 diabetes, the most common form, a person’s body is insulin resistant; it’s not properly using insulin.

Certain people with diabetes must understand their normal blood glucose levels, be able to recognise when those levels dip or spike, and educate themselves about proper dosages of insulin, then possibly give themselves injections. A device that would automatically know and track a user’s levels, monitor their real-time data, and even administer precise treatments at the moments they’re needed could act just like a functioning pancreas. The solutions unlocked by such a device would surely open up potential for artificial organs, too—the heart, maybe even the brain.

Today, thanks to smart, connected, and increasingly intelligent medical technology, the unicorn looks a little more real.

Internet of Things, composed of connected devices, opened up a stream of data from our bodies. Now a new wave of intelligent tech not only analyses and predicts what’s happening with patients’ bodies, it can recommend or take actions with little to no human intervention. This intelligence is helping us tackle a broad number of health and wellness issues. It’s really about bringing forth artificial intelligence with the help of algorithms to make it approachable and easily available to consume, by people.

Attempts to solve the diabetes challenge escalated in 1964, with the first blood sugar testing strips, developed by the Ames Company. By 1970, Ames introduced the first glucose meter. Then came the first wearable insulin pump in 1976. But only in this decade has the artificial pancreas become real. And it all has to do with intelligence built into handheld computers.

The normalised heart

At the moment of this writing, 123,187 people across the United States are in need of a lifesaving organ transplant as reported by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). In the first 10 months of 2014, 27,036 transplants occurred. When it comes to matters of the heart, specifically, the story gets darker.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, about 70 percent of hearts available for donation will go unused, because hearts are not viable after cardiac death. The only source for a viable heart for transplant is from “brain dead” donors with actively beating hearts.

Companies today are working on the problem. A “heart in a box” system, for example, keeps the organ warm and beating for an extended period until it’s transplanted. Implementation in hospitals is awaiting FDA pre- and post-clinical trial approvals. Devices like the pulmonary artery pressure sensor and the Latitude Heart Coach app, are now translating the data from sophisticated systems so consumers can take action—it’s the difference between smart, connected, and intelligent things.

From the football field to the medical field

It is encouraging to see this new wave of technology and heartening to see non-traditional companies entering the health and wellness space. The innovation goes far beyond the operating room. Sensor-lined sports helmets, for example, can monitor blows to players’ heads, but they often don’t reveal brain trauma. The Vector Mouthguard, a new wearable device by i1 Biometrics, transmits that data directly to a coach in plain language, so he can protect his players. It monitors and measures severity and location of hits in various sports, plus it records performance moments that a player and coach can review and improve upon. They chose a mouthguard because intracranial data provides objective, highly accurate impact data. A sensor and handheld smart device make this system simple to implement and use. After a beta program at Louisiana State University, the mouthguard debuted at the International CES in Las Vegas in January 2015.

As wearables, sensors, smart patches, and our phones continue to get smarter, technology that is truly intelligent becomes a seamless part of our everyday lives.

The author is CMO, Flex.

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