Initially designed as a possible solution for the increasing costs in healthcare systems, health apps and sensors gradually started to enter people’s daily lives and are now a common accessory amongst many sports’ enthusiasts.
Chris Van Hoof, Program Director Wearable Healthcare & Fellow at Holst Centre/imec, talks about the reality of these devices in today’s society and explains his vision for their future.
With aging population and the rise of chronic disease, the last decades have been testing the limits of traditional healthcare systems worldwide.
Medical professionals and researchers across the globe have been focusing on finding suitable alternatives to reduce – or stabilize – costs in healthcare. That was the initial premise behind the development of some of today’s mobile health apps and wearable tech: providing doctors with tools and new information deliver even higher standards of care that enables reduction in hospital stays without compromising patients’ care.
Working in the field of wearable wireless sensors for the past 10 years, Chris Van Hoof envisions a much bigger role for these devices in the healthcare sector. He believes wearables will play a crucial role in actively restoring one’s health and even preventing certain diseases, by promoting behavioral changes that will ultimately lead to an overall improvement of people’s lifestyle and health.
Your doctor becomes mobile
In the context of patient care, today’s health apps and wearable solutions are already able to monitor the patient’s status and report it to their doctor or nurse. However, medical-grade solutions are still relatively bulky and today’s consumer solutions, while small and convenient, are lacking in performance.
Chris Van Hoof’s team is creating wearables that provide medical-quality data in a consumer form factor, ultimately enabling people to leave the hospital bed sooner and do most of their recovery in the comfort of their homes. While this is a big step forward, it is just the beginning.
According to imec’s director, in the nearby future these devices should be able to detect early signs of anomalous levels in certain indicators – such as spikes in blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, among others – and automatically react to them (by providing medication or other courses of action).
“Our goal in these cases is to prevent hospitalization as much as possible”, he concludes.
However, we can go even further. “Nearly 80 percent of all cardiovascular disorders are preventable. And in most cases they are the direct long-term consequence of unhealthy lifestyles – bad eating habits, smoking, drinking, lack of activity – which in the long term lead to hypertension, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.”
More than focusing on managing these chronic conditions, we should work on decreasing their emergence.
“Around 97 percent of overall healthcare costs worldwide go to treatment, with only 3% focusing on prevention. That needs to change”, declares Chris. “We need to tackle these issues at a much younger age, by promoting healthier lifestyles amongst teenagers and young professionals.” And wearables can play a big role in it.
The personalized, virtual coach
Fitness trackers and health apps displaying notifications on smartphones saying ‘It’s Tuesday, let’s go for a run’ are already a reality. But how effective are they?
Chris Van Hoof is very pragmatic in his answer, “Today’s apps lack intelligence – they are not taking into account people’s interests, habits or schedules. They provide generic recommendations based on the average person. But people are not average, they are not generic – they require individual advice and feedback, adapted to their lifestyle, physical condition and overall goals. In other words, these apps should work as a personal coach – a ‘virtual personal coach’”.
Stress management is a hugely relevant application domain for the virtual coach. Working together with behavioral experts, psychologists and psychiatrists, Chris Van Hoof has been studying how different people – and population groups – are triggered by stress, how their bodies express it and what their coping mechanisms are. The goal is to be able to predict stress-inducing moments and provide personalized relevant advice at the right time.
Similar studies are being conducted for capturing smoking behavior and encouraging weight management. More than simply counting how many puffs one had during the day or their calorie intake, researchers at imec want to understand what triggers people into lighting a cigarette or binge-eating – and teach them healthier alternatives.
“These applications can’t be isolated, they need to be context-aware”, states Chris Van Hoof. “They must have access to my schedule, know my surroundings and understand my personality. That is the only way for them to be able to accurately and timely predict those behaviors we want to prevent and steer people towards healthier and equally fulfilling lives. Once we manage to develop these prediction and personalization capabilities, that’s when the ‘virtual coach’ may become as compelling and effective as a real one.”
The bigger picture
Chris Van Hoof is confident that this future is close. “I truly believe wearables will be a normal part of our daily lives within 10 years.” However, before that happens, a few conditions still need to be met, the first of which being value.
“Once the big players in mobile communications start developing and commercializing wearables that provide a sufficient added value, people will start buying them”, assures Chris.
But there is also a deeper, more drastic change needed in the healthcare models. According to imec’s director, in order for this vision to become a reality, we must change the way we evaluate the work of healthcare professionals and pharmaceutical companies: it can no longer be about the number of hours they work or how many drugs they supply, but rather on patient outcomes. Only then will wearables can effectively start being used in preventive medicine, which in the long term will have a major impact in cost reduction in healthcare systems.
While insurance companies are already starting to see the benefits of such devices, it’s in governments’ hands to further promote these changes. This is the only way wearables will gain traction in healthcare – and the only path towards, not only a more sustainable system, but also a healthier population.