Fitness bands, heart rate trackers, sleep monitors -- the world of tech is no stranger to health-focussed gadgets. But when two of the world's largest technology companies, Apple and Google, reveal that they are to make a significant effort to enter into the world of health tracking themselves, it's time to sit up and take note.
This autumn is expected to see the launch of both Apple's iOS 8 operating system, and Google's Android L mobile OS update. iOS 8 will introduce the HealthKit API and Android L will bring with it Google Fit. Each will allow apps and devices to collect data based on many different health metrics, and could eventually provide the means for health practitioners to monitor patients without having to meet them in the flesh. In the case of Apple with its HealthKit API and Health app, it's already lined up a number of pioneering hospitals in the US that will use its API and data delivery systems to remotely track and, in some cases, even treat patients.
The potential benefits are clear, says Dr Dushan Gunasekera, founder of the myHealthCare clinic.
"Harvesting of patient data would help doctors to pinpoint trends and anomalies, on a national and individual level," Gunasekera told Gizmodo. "Patterns can be tracked and monitored, helping doctors to understand the historic progression of the health concern, thereby potentially allowing them to reach a more conclusive diagnosis within a shorter timeframe."
It's not just doctors who would benefit of course, but patients too. Anyone that's waited weeks for a doctor's appointment (only to have to wait hours more to see a practitioner upon arrival at a hospital) will have keenly felt the process's frustration. Consistent mobile health tracking could potentially allow for speedier GP visits, and even allow for predictive and preventative measures to be suggested by a doctor.
"It is conceivable that mobile devices could make consultations shorter, as having access to historic data on key medical metrics provides more information that potentially aids a faster and more robust diagnosis", explains Gunasekera.
"From a proactive healthcare perspective, the devices may also encourage the patient to take more care of their health, which may mean they are less likely to get sick and need to see a doctor in the first place."
However, the devices themselves will not be replacing the doctors themselves any time soon.
"We have a long way to go before app and wearable data can be relied upon by doctors, let alone replace one," cautions Gunasekera.
"The data is unlikely to be accurate and genuinely useful within the next two to three years. However, we are likely to see more partnerships emerging between medical device manufacturers and technology companies that will accelerate advancement of this technology."
The transmission of such sensitive personal data also raises privacy concerns. Aside from which IT workers have access to your health data at a hospital or GP's office, what about from the manufacturer's end? Could engineers too access your personal health data? And what if your phone was stolen -- would a thief have the means to access your medical history too? It's an "extremely valid" concern, says Gunasekera. "Manufacturers must prove that their systems are secure and adhere to data protection laws," he stresses.
Of course, patients the world over already rely upon technology -- often implanted into their very bodies. Implants that transmit blood glucose levels to a monitor are increasingly common for diabetics, and the performance of an implanted pacemaker can be monitored externally too. Though Google and Apple are more likely to focus on wearable health-tracking tech than implantable gear, Google's investment in smart contact lenses shows it's not afraid of exploring the potential of augmenting a person's body in the future. Could we really see a time when cyborgs live among us? Possibly. "I am sure we’ll see implantable health tracking sensors become more widespread, particularly when it makes a profound impact on a user’s lifestyle or indeed when it can be life-saving," says Gunasekera.
While the US healthcare system, dominated by private practises, is able to be more agile and adapt more quickly to incorporate this coming wave of mobile innovation, the NHS-reliant UK is a very different beast. "Doctors are not yet in a position to use patient data from mobile phones," clarifies Gunasekera. And it may be some time before Apple and Google's systems penetrate the UK in the same way they are poised to do across the Atlantic. The manufacturers will need to "build credibility and prove that the services are secure and reliable enough for doctors to use first, before the government invests more in this area," Gunasekera added.
For the time being, standalone online services will likely have the most immediate short-term impact on the UK health industry. Gunasekera is one of a growing number of GPs contactable through the Zesty online platform, which allows patients to book appointments last minute online, and giving them an option over who they would like to see. It also allows GPs to rebook cancelled appointment slots quickly, reducing wasted time and freeing up more appointment slots for other patients too.
"It enables patients to navigate a confusing and fragmented healthcare market and find high quality, review-based, professionals that are local and immediately accessible. From both a patient and practitioner perspective, it’s undoubtedly a much better scenario to the status quo," says Gunasekera of the Zesty system.
Though the future is not yet clear as to how far reaching this year's mobile health tracking developments will prove to be, it's hard to argue with Gunasekera when he suggests that continued investment in smart health trackers can only be a positive thing:
"I really do welcome the development of smart monitoring services. This is a very exciting technology with great potential, but it is one that needs to meet the rigorous standards of the medical profession in order to gain credibility and be a useful tool for doctors. There is no doubt we will reach this point and not only will it lead to efficiencies in our health care systems but actually might provide a tangible medium through which clinicians can effectively practise preventative medicine."