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Will technology make us all much healthier?

Tech like wearables can identify medical problems quickly and make us act in healthier ways.

Tech like wearables can identify medical problems quickly and make us act in healthier ways.

As smart devices get smarter, they become more people’s go-to for more and more things. Take health and fitness. Apps related to this were downloaded 2.48 billion times in 2021, while the promise of being able to monitor and improve our health has been one of the key factors behind the explosion in sales of wearables, such as smart watches, in recent years. Some people have started to talk about this sort of technology as a new medical frontier, with apps poised to improve and even replace current treatment options for a range of issues. But will they live up to this hype?

Because health apps are not currently regulated to the same high standards that medicines and medical professionals are, the effectiveness of a lot of the current offerings on the Apple App Store or Google Play is questionable. But when we zoom in on just the health apps that were built on actual expertise and have been properly tested for their effectiveness, some clear benefits to using this kind of tech emerge.

The first is that continuously tracking data about your health makes it easier for either the user or the tech to spot health issues early. Smartwatches have been able to detect things like pregnancy, Covid-19 and organ failure before any symptoms emerge. As a general rule of thumb, the quicker both a patient and their health care system know something’s up, the better the options and prognosis will be, and the lower the treatment cost.

The second benefit is that this tech is really good at nudging people to change their behaviour for the better. Seeing a notification pop up on our screen makes us much more likely to get our steps up or take our pills, especially if the app has a gamification aspect to it. That's basically because the way our brains respond to the challenges and rewards inherent in a game-like structure makes us more likely to stick to the healthy behaviour, whether to savour the joy of success or avoid the disappointment of falling short.

The third benefit of health tech is its potential for customisation. The huge variety of humanity is generally a bit of a problem for the medical industry, because it makes it hard to create treatments that work for everyone. But apps that are designed to mould themselves to an individual may reduce this problem. For example, there is a piece of wearable tech that tracks the gait of stroke patients and then creates music with a matching beat. In its medical trials, this tech seems to be having a large positive effect on those patients’ ability to relearn to walk.

There are, however, some concerning downsides to health tech. One is the possibility of the data and devices being used in nefarious ways. Hacked health apps could provide a route for some truly horrible things, including privacy invasion, blackmail and physical harm (especially where apps are linked to medical devices that are keeping their owners healthy and alive). Alongside that risk is the fear that if insurers or employers managed to get hold of non-encrypted health data they could use it to discriminate against unwell people, piling more financial and wellbeing costs onto people who are already disadvantaged.

Another big concern is about how the cost of the tech might make it inaccessible to some, and how that might add to existing health inequalities where richer people tend to get a better standard of care. There are counters to this worry: much of the required hardware is getting cheaper over time, and some of the most beneficial apps are being subsidised and offered on prescription by healthcare services such as private insurers or the NHS. But as things stand it is still wealthier people in wealthier countries who are most likely to own things like smartphones and smartwatches, and also to be able to afford the latest and most cutting-edge version of wearables and health apps. Plus, of course, richer people are also more likely to have health insurance, be able to skip work to see a doctor, have the resources to act on health advice like changing their diet, and generally access all the other things that help translate the potential benefits of health tech into actual improvements in health.

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