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How health care companies can use biometric data to keep you healthy

Technology and information is impacting every aspect of our lives – including our health and the care we receive.

We look to our smartphones and apps to enhance our living every day and this includes health care, even if we don’t realise it. We use biometric data to unlock our phones and are recording vital information about our health and fitness. The scope this offers health care companies is broad and will help keep us all healthy in the future.

What is biometric data?

It is information taken using unique measurements from your body, such as your fingerprints, the irises of your eyes, your voice or even your veins. If you have a phone that you unlock by a touch of the screen, or you own a Fitbit or other fitness tracker, then you’re using biometric data every day.

This isn’t entirely new though

In 1858, a savvy civil servant in India recorded his employees’ handprints on the back of their contracts for use in potential pay disputes. This is the first use of biometrics for systematic identity management.

Law enforcement agencies have been using fingerprint identification (and later DNA sampling) from those involved in crimes for more than 100 years. If you’re in the UK you can even track the biometric data the police force hold on you!

How can fingerprints help our health?

Biometric information in health care can provide a wealth of valuable information about you and your body.

It can ensure medical records contain your information and no one else’s to help prevent fraud. Linking data through iris scanners or facial recognition software is already being used to prevent ‘overlays’ — when someone else’s information is linked to yours, potentially fraudulently. In the USA the National Health Care Anti-Fraud Association estimates that health care fraud runs into the tens of billions every year.

How your fitness tracker can help you and your health

In terms of your health, the benefits of biometrics do not just centre around security and patient identification. The technology means information about you can be collected and monitored, creating the potential to prevent foreseeable health issues coming your way.

Many people are already recording their blood pressure, sleep patterns and heart rates through cheap body-worn devices. So, why not link this directly to a doctor’s surgery to record it there? Your doctor could then message you to flag up a health concern raised through biometric data.

Apps already exist to remotely monitor your health through information you can input such as your temperature and oxygen levels. Add in scanning your veins or eyes to check for hidden diseases and it means you could be linked to a clinician quickly, possibly sooner than the current process of booking an appointment. Biometric data could also flag to your doctor any health issues that you hadn’t even realised, rather than time passing and developing symptoms you may then want to seek medical advice for.

Body-worn trackers are already proving a success for detecting issues with our health, such as irregular heartbeats. The life of a student in the UK was saved after she flagged an abnormal heart rate reading from her fitness tracker to a telephone health care service. And 73-year-old Patricia Lauder from Connecticut discovered she had an irregular heartbeat using a fitness device, enabling her to seek medical treatment.

Some biometric hardware can even detect data through clothes, such as Olea Systems’ OS-3008 technology that collects real-time heart rate respiration and heart rate variability. The data is transferred to a central processing unit through a USB cable or Bluetooth, which can be accessed using the accompanying software.  

Andrea Morese, Marketing Programmes Director from Olea Systems, said the scope for using technology such as this is beneficial to many groups in society, including the elderly as well as those living in developing countries. She added: “Saving lives by preventative measures based upon predictive analysis is the greatest potential we see. Also, actually reaching people in developing countries is often a greater problem than the associated costs. Just the logistics of being able to offer health care in rural India, for example, is a huge problem. This technology fits in very well with the initiative to use health care kiosks, which are portable and can be easily set up by itinerant and local doctors in remote locations.”

Access to technology

It's now estimated there is nearly a cell phone for every person on the planet. Although smartphone use is still emerging in developing countries, it is increasingly rapid. Pew Research Center found: “In 2013, a median of 45% across 21 emerging and developing countries reported using the internet at least occasionally or owning a smartphone. In 2015, that figure rose to 54%, with much of that increase coming from large emerging economies such as Malaysia, Brazil and China.”

And with smartphone access and use comes apps – many of which are already offering biometric data tracking of various body measurements. According to JMIR Publications, in a 2015 study of mobile phone use of health care apps in the US, they found that 58% of mobile phone users had downloaded a health care app.

Still have concerns?

Biometric data doesn’t come without concerns. In the same study, it was found that 45.7% of all respondents stopped using them because they were worried about or bored with inputting personal data. There is always room for error and, like any technology, there may be flaws in accuracy as the technology develops. Likewise, there may always be user concern regarding confidentiality and trusting an app to store or deliver very personal information.

Questions are already being raised about data protection. For example, would information stored ever be accessed or requested by people such as future employers, who may make it a prerequisite of a job offer to record your biometrics?

However, trusted health care companies, their partners, and digital service providers will always adopt cutting edge practises for safeguarding their customers’ data. Technology users who do their research will find a plethora of responsible, high-quality companies working within the industry.

As the technology evolves, there is no doubt that biometric data provides a way of reaching corners of the community who may go un-reached and offer a cost-effective solution to a growing pressure on health care services. However, like any seismic shift, a biometrics solution for health care will take time. It’s therefore essential for Aetna International to be at the forefront of developments in health care biometrics, so that those vulnerable to isolation – such as people living in foreign countries - are supported as they integrate into local and virtual health care systems.

Learn more about virtual health and digital technology

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