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Technology in health care 2019: a review

How is technology continuing to drive innovations in health care and improving access to care through increased personalisation?

No area of technology has transformed health care more in recent years than the internet, and in particular Web 2.0 and the Internet of Things. 

This article will examine the results of experiments with technology within health care and how it could be used going forwards, from personalisation of health journeys to rewarding healthier choices.

Web 2.0 and social media

With the advent of Web 2.0 the web morphed into something interactive and personal. Individuals became both consumers and creators, and publishers began customising content. Social media soon followed.

When social media strategies are combined with educational healthy choices programmes in schools and the community, health care organisations can truly start to make a difference. There is a substantial body of support for the conclusion that mass media campaigns, including social media efforts, can change population health behaviours.

Smartphones and mobile

Improved access to health care presumes internet access, which is not always the case. Half the world’s population has internet access, while two-thirds of the people on the planet use mobile phones (as of December 2017). Only about half of mobile phone users have smartphones, limiting the health-promotion tactics that could reach them. Still, for those who have access, technology can be a powerful tool.

The Internet of Things

If mobile devices freed the internet from desktop and laptop computers, the Internet of Things (IoT) freed it from computers entirely. IoT is the network of physical devices — everything from vehicles to refrigerators to wearables — that can connect to the internet and therefore to other devices.

Wireless technology enables remote patient monitoring (RPM) devices to collect a variety of important data, from blood pressure and pulse rate to sleeping patterns, and transmit it to health care professionals. Data can then be analysed and corrective actions taken — all of which combines for precise, personalised treatment journeys.

Wearables — Capturing the value of personal health data

The most common IoT devices in health care are wearables like the Fitbit, which track everything from steps taken to hours slept. But IoT offers many more possibilities, including virtual health, which improves access, diagnosis, treatment and condition management.

Wearables allow for the easy, automatic collection of health data. As well as step counting, newer Fitbits nudge users if they’ve been sedentary for too long.

Wearables offer so much potential that some health insurers offer them free or at a discount as incentives to increase physical activity amongst members. Currently, about six per cent of consumers who own a wearable activity tracker got them from their employers. That share is likely to skyrocket, with an estimated 13 million wearables integrated into corporate wellness plans in 2018.

Wearables are also tapping into many of the psychological techniques that keep us reaching for our mobile devices. For example, Fitbit users earn virtual badges as their steps pile up — e.g., the Italy badge for walking the entire length of Italy, which is 736 miles — and they receive gentle reminders when they’re not reaching their goals. The gamification of physical activity and competitiveness on a social level is especially powerful for younger individuals.

While millions of wearables have been sold, research shows that many users stop wearing their devices after six months, suggesting that consumers remain unconvinced about devices’ real-world benefits. As well as data not being entirely accurate, users need help interpreting results and charting a path forward.

Fortunately, professional-grade wearables offer more accurate results. For example, Firstbeat’s Bodyguard 2 device measures heart rate variability, which offers a window into everything from breathing control to metabolic processes to stress reactions. In the hands of a qualified coach, that data can be used to craft effective, personalised health-improvement plans.

Community and support

Social support is crucial for building healthier lifestyles. People who perceive a sense of relatedness and connection to other people feel more motivated, and social media networks can provide us with the means of connecting with those people. Making goals public can also be a useful motivational tool.

Used well, social media tools can build both self-efficacy (the belief that the individual has the tools, knowledge and training to achieve the desired outcome) and response efficacy (the belief that the new behaviour will lead to the desired outcome). Combined with social support, believing you can effect change can lead individuals to make autonomous choices to change because they feel that “we’re all in this together”.

Personalisation and technology

Everyone can potentially benefit from the data captured, from individuals to governments: wearables, health records, medical insurers and genetics offer greater personalisation and allow individuals to take their data history with them.

Read about Aetna International’s DNA health testing

New technologies could also offer additional opportunities to effect behavioural change in individuals and communities. For example, online communities like Facebook could soon be turning to video hangout platforms similar to Houseparty, which is used by over one million people each day. One can imagine, for example, a virtual support-group meeting for people seeking to lose weight.

Once an individual is motivated to change, connected technology can play an important role. In fact, it’s fundamental to the future of health care — both in providing more convenient, sophisticated access to care and as a tool that can help support healthy behaviours. For example, reaching individuals during their daily life to help them make better health choices and reducing their need for health care — especially amongst the rising tide of lifestyle-related diseases.

Tech-based support

A small but intriguing research project shows the potential for social media peer pressure to improve health outcomes (perhaps replacing or supplementing the important family support noted above). The project’s results found that that promotional messages encouraged non-active people to try enrolling once. However, continued messaging did not have an enduring effect beyond that. Social influence, by contrast, significantly increased the likelihood of repeated enrolment.

A tech-based quit smoking trial gave similar results, with intervention participants twice as likely as their peers to have quit.

Connected tech also allows users to earn tangible rewards in the form of points that can be redeemed for anything from Amazon gift cards to fitness equipment.

Motivating the unmotivated

Just as in the pre-digital world, people must be motivated to make lifestyle changes. A text reminder that you haven’t yet reached your daily step goal is unlikely to get you out the door if you have no sense of ownership of that goal. The studies above hint at ways to keep people motivated. Next the industry must wrestle with how to get people motivated in the first place. Here, too, a personalised approach is essential.

Summary

Research shows how new technologies and personalisation can combat old problems. Soon, technology will facilitate predictive, preventative, participatory and personalised health care solutions to nagging health issues. This will represent a fundamental shift in the way society addresses lifestyle-related diseases and genetic irregularities, and we can increase the number of healthy, happy, productive individuals among us while easing pressures on health care systems.

But health professionals will still need to translate data into meaningful actions that individuals can take. As Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus said: “While technology is important, it’s what we do with it that truly matters.”

Read about Aetna International’s DNA health testing.

Find out more

Watch the video of our Summer Broker Forum, which discussed the role of technology in health care and its role in our proactive, preventative approach.

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