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Health Care, Digitized

by Benjamin Sheng

Health care has grown better and better over the course of human civilization. Where doctors were once only for the wealthy and powerful, they are now available to almost anyone. Where the best ways to treat diseases were once “miracle cures” (e.g. boiled toads) peddled by quacks, there are now rigorous preventive measures backed by countless trials. 

For many years, the stereotypical checkup, which everyone is surely familiar with (if not, do visit your doctor immediately), has consisted of a visit to your local doctor, during which the doctor would take some basic measurements, such as height, weight, blood pressure, and all of that good stuff, and then ask you if you were experiencing anything concerning. Then the doctor might prescribe some medication, after which you would check out of the clinic and continue with your day. 

While they have done an excellent job at keeping us healthy, our current health care providers do fail at one aspect: it is extremely hard to detect certain problems, or what we call the “silent killers”. These medical conditions, such as heart attacks or cancer, can be extremely difficult to foresee. Patients need a reliable way to stop potentially fatal conditions from happening in the first place, or a way to simply give advance warning so that adequate help can be given to minimize the negative effects. 

Wearable gadgets have helped where manpower has failed. Every day, these gadgets, such as the popular Fitbits and Apple Watches, can now measure heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels, and even more. These devices offer three decisive advantages over current health care: they allow for early diagnosis, personalized treatment, and the management of chronic diseases.

They can detect a gradual weakness in the patient, which might mean a condition such as osteoporosis is developing or an onset of paralysis. Smart devices can even detect pregnancy less than a week after conception, meaning that women will be able to adjust their lifestyle choices earlier to ensure better health of the child. Later, these devices will be able to assign treatments based on individuality to people, instead of a cure for the “average” human. This is important because certain treatments may not work for everyone, and an individualized approach is bound to have a higher success rate. They could even allow doctors to view a patient’s data full-time, letting them provide complementary real-time advice.

In addition, people with chronic diseases, such as diabetes or obesity, will be better able to manage their conditions. Smart devices will be able to alert their wearers if they are not following their treatment, meaning that patients will follow their regiments more effectively, which in turn will greatly lower the cost of treatment, which is important because many people might not be able to afford it. In fact, smart devices might even be able to prevent these chronic diseases by helping people change their lifestyle choices, such as by reminding them to sleep longer or eat more greens, in a tone like that of a spouse or close friend. Since most heart attack patients are not even picking up their medications after a year, this could mean a much more efficient treatment. Along with all the smart devices comes something called the “quantified self”, in which all sorts of data are recorded about a person, from the important to the trivial. This way, a sort of digital version of a person is created, allowing for a unique treatment to be developed. 

The prevalence of these smart devices is also becoming greater and greater – 200 million were sold in 2020, and retailers expect the number to double by 2026. A quarter of Americans already have some sort of wearable device. And as more and more features are added to these wearables (Pac-Man, maybe?), more and more people will be less tempted to condemn their devices to dusty obscurity in the back of some drawer.

The recentness of this technology does, however, give ample cause for concern to consumers. Worries that health data could be abused by device-makers, insurers, or governments are all too common. The makers of such devices might also not be interested in reaching out to the poor (after all, smart technology is a profitable business) or those who are the most sick, who need it most. As with all things, strict rules and enforcement is needed to ensure not only that the trove of data collected from devices is not exploited, but also that everyone controls their own data.

The rise of digitized health care, from wearable devices to the “quantified self”, promises a brighter and healthier future for everyone. More and more possibly fatal medical conditions will be prevented before they occur. Patients will recover faster and faster. Being able to view your own health data or receive personalized treatment, whether from virtual or real-life doctors, will become universal. Welcome to the age of health care, digitized.  

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