Health diagnostics are rapidly shifting from the lab and hospital into our own homes.
6 min read
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Most people think of a toilet as having, well, one function. But what if your toilet could do a basic urinalysis to monitor for signs of diabetes, report back on your gut biome or even alert you to blood that might indicate colon cancer? Stanford University scientists are hard at work on a smart toilet prototype that can do just that, and it’s just one example of a wave of new personal diagnostic tools about to be unleashed inside our own homes in the wake of the current crisis.
Most of us are thinking a lot more about our health this year. Just as millions have sequestered themselves inside with Zoom meetings, Peloton classes and Door-Dashed dinners, people are taking healthcare solutions into their home with the help of emerging technologies. Doctors’ visits have migrated online en masse. Smartphones, smart watches and other connected devices are replacing stethoscopes and tongue depressors.
But this is just the start. An ecosystem of connected solutions (including toilets!) is emerging, with people turning to personal devices to collect health data, specialized platforms to crunch it, and powerful AI to assist diagnoses and help prescribe courses of action.
Importantly, this transformation is playing out largely in our homes, rather than in hospitals or clinics. It promises to fundamentally shift the focus of healthcare from treatment to prevention. And, for entrepreneurs, it may well represent the next great digital wave.
The evolution of personal health tech
Personal healthtech was already surging in capability and adoption before the coronavirus hit. Indeed, wearable medical devices like fitness trackers reached $10.6 billion in revenues in 2019.
Fueling this growth are increasingly affordable sensors, ubiquitous network connectivity and AI data processing in the cloud. Our personal biometric data is easier than ever to record and catalogue, and with that data comes the possibility for health insights that extend far beyond just heart rates or steps taken.
The industry has drawn some of the biggest names in tech, with giants Apple, Amazon and Alphabet (which recently purchased Fitbit) racing to lead the nascent segment. Apple Watch sales dwarfed the entire Swiss watchmaking industry’s sales by nearly 50 percent last year, thanks in part to next-gen health features like the ability to detect irregular heartbeats and capture ECG readings.
Then Covid hit, and the world’s need for new health tech got real.
Beyond mere fitness trackers, a growing number of smart medical devices are certified by regulators and deliver genuine medical benefits, inside the home. Smart thermometers, toothbrushes and toilets are on the market or on the way, growing smarter all the time. Other devices bridge the gap for remote medicine. The Medwand, for example, helps doctors examine patients and take their vitals remotely, integrating everything from a stethoscope and IR thermometer to a pulse oximeter and dermatoscope for skin lesions.
As the fight against Covid continues, multiple companies are developing in-home diagnostic tools that can deliver results within minutes, without the need to go to the lab. The theater for healthcare has shifted in important ways from the doctor’s office and hospital into our own homes.
What’s the future of digital health?
Importantly, these new tools aren’t just a convenient stopgap during lockdown. Rather, they augur a long sought-after shift in the focus of healthcare: from treatment to prevention. Despite consensus that early diagnosis and intervention saves money and lives, modern healthcare has remained stubbornly reactive, with too many patients seeking treatment only after illness has set in.
The confluence of cheap diagnostic technology and a pandemic that requires vigilant monitoring is changing that dynamic. Kinsa’s smart thermometers, for example, aggregate anonymized user data to create an early warning system for diseases like Covid-19. In another context, researchers are investigating how to use the sensors built into popular Apple products — iPhones, Apple Watches and iPads — to collect data that machine learning can wade through to detect dementia risks much earlier than traditional diagnostic methods can.
Yet, this technology-powered transition is still in early innings, with the multi-trillion-dollar healthcare market providing ample opportunities for innovation. Apple, for instance, is working to leverage its massive customer base to build a robust healthcare platform around its health records app — a portal that will pull together third-party hardware, software, and healthcare-provider partners. Apple CEO Tim Cook says his company’s move into the health sector will one day become its greatest contribution to mankind.
Indeed, it’s this shift from merely gathering data to offering a full-featured health platform that promises to change the world. It will empower individuals to manage their own health with information that’s mostly held by institutions today. You and I will one day be able to use our smartphones as dashboards to see and assess health risks continuously, in real time. Someone with epilepsy might have earbuds that can collect brain-wave data that AI can interpret to warn about an oncoming seizure — and call for help if needed.
What are the pitfalls?
For all its potential, healthtech obviously comes with a unique set of challenges. “Move fast and break things” may be a popular mantra among tech founders, but that doesn’t work when you’re dealing with people’s health, privacy, and lives. Patients’ health records, for example, are protected by law, and rightfully so. Companies must do due diligence to build secure procedures and data-handling infrastructure, a challenge too-often skirted in an era when smart, connected devices have grown ubiquitous.
Quality control is also critical. You can’t get away with putting out glitchy minimum viable products if you’re selling medical devices or medical services. You need to get things right before you hurt people — and before you apply for regulatory approval.
But while moral obligations and legal regulations create speed bumps for healthtech entrepreneurs in a hurry, they also create opportunities for those who can build secure, reliable, regulatory-compliant solutions.
Healthtech entrepreneurship offers intangible gifts too, like the gratification of knowing you’re improving people’s lives in a meaningful way. I had my own wake-up call last year, when my doctors detected plaque in my arteries during a routine physical. Had this happened in an earlier era, my cardiologist told me, a heart attack would have been my first sign of trouble. Luckily, I got a chance to turn things around without nearly dying first.
To me, that’s the real promise of personal health tech. One day, we won’t need a doctor to warn us of trouble — our watches will ping us far in advance, telling us to put down the fries and get moving.