Health Tracking and Privacy: Where Are We Going?
We have discussed the past and present of healthcare tracking and consumer privacy in other blog posts. Now, what about the future? What do we see in our crystal ball when it comes to the future of health tracking and privacy issues? Well, we believe the three biggest factors will be agency, data and automated medicine.
First, a little about what each one means:
- Agency is what you give healthcare professionals when you allow them to make decisions for you. You don’t have the training they do, so you rely on them to take action on your behalf.
- Data is a loaded word, these days. “Big data,” “dark data” and other buzzwords are being thrown around the media and tech worlds constantly. Data will take on a new meaning in the future.
- Automated medicine will be a revolutionary change. Right now, pharmaceutical companies spend huge amounts of effort to help people simply adhere to prescription terms. Imagine if, in the future, we had a device embedded under our skin that delivers medicine at the appropriate doses and intervals.
If you wake up feeling sick tomorrow, you may Google your symptoms or ask a friend or family member for advice. If it’s serious enough, you’ll go to the doctor. What you are doing is looking for someone to take agency over your health; you look to others for their wisdom. But even professionals are humans who make mistakes and can’t individually possess the knowledge of the entire health community. But what if they could?
Let’s take a step back. One of human’s greatest achievements was landing on the moon on July 20, 1969, thanks to the Apollo Guidance Computer. But in 2012, Apple came out with the iPhone® 5, which means that a mere 40 years later, we had a pocket-sized computer 1,270 times faster and 286 times lighter, with 250,000 times more memory and 2 million times more storage.
And computing isn’t advancing linearly, either. This means it won’t take another 40 years before we have a supercomputer version of today’s iPhone; it could happen in fewer than 10 years. Our health choices will be assisted by artificial intelligence (AI), using massive amounts of computing power and Internet connectability to analyze information and draw conclusions for us. Agency will move from a person or a collective of people to a personal device.
Data is what will make this pocket-sized supercomputer so powerful. But what data? With the emergence of wearable health trackers, like the new Apple Watch, technology companies are acclimatizing consumers to this new frontier. Societal norms will incrementally evolve to allow for more and more health tracking. Imagine a wearable device that tracks activity, blood glucose, heart rate, caloric intake and burn, blood levels, perspiration and hydration, sleep, mood, neural activity, and much more.
The power inherent in this kind of data removes the need for a doctor to measure your levels when you get sick. Your pocket-sized supercomputer can tell you when you are about to become sick. It has access to all the medical health knowledge ever created, millions of anonymized health records, and decades of data on your biometric levels. It will know more accurately than ever thought possible when your body is fighting a cold or even developing cancer. It will notify you, order treatments for you and schedule visits with specialists.
As a result, healthcare privacy will come full circle. It will go from candy stripers handling records to semi-secure HIPAA-backed records to an influx of beneficial data that will encourage us to be much more relaxed about who sees our information. If most diseases could be self-treated or avoided altogether and physician visits only happened rarely, medical records would look very different. What will private companies’ involvement look like? If an insulin manufacturer knew you were developing diabetes, would that be a worst-case scenario, or could it offer benefit? What if advertising paid for universal healthcare?
But wait … one more thing. All of the communication in the world won’t get patients to 100 percent adherence. Being human means forgetting, ignoring, denying, refusing — even abusing and becoming addicted. Healthcare systems work hard to improve adherence and technology is helping, but prescriptions are still sitting on the shelf or going down the drain and into a landfill.
We can’t make humans perfect, but we can minimize human error with advances like medicine being automatically dispensed via a device embedded in the skin. With your wearable tracking your biometric data and your pocket-sized supercomputer knowing all of medical science, why not let technology give your medicine to you?
We could stop overdoses and missed prescriptions and eliminate abuse. But do we want to give that much control or agency to a device? Perhaps. Technology is great, but it isn’t perfect and we aren’t asking it to be. We simply want it to be closer to the perfection that humans can achieve. It feels like a strange new world, but looking back, it seems more like a natural progression. Imagine telling consumers in the 1960s that, half a century in the future, people would have supercomputers in their pockets that access, from almost anywhere, nearly all the information ever recorded. What would they say?
Certainly the realities of government regulation and its inability to keep pace with technology will be a factor. And when it comes to serious health concerns, there will always be a need for human intervention at some level. Our ability to track — and therefore, to control and modify — our health is greater now than it has ever been, and I’ve outlined what I believe it will grow into. Will this shift in agency, the reversal of privacy concerns and a rise in hyper-automated medicine come to pass?
And, as humans, what will our concerns be?
Only time will tell.