From big data, AI algorithms, VR, AR and robotics to biotech, medicine and health is undergoing what most experts consider will prove to be the biggest leap since antibiotics were accidentally discovered by Alexander Fleming in the 1920s. New applications on the latest technology in the world mean we are almost certain to live longer than ever before. This is both as a result of preventative medicine and new cures for a large number of previously fatal or chronic conditions and diseases.
But there are exceptions to every rule. A recent report by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges into the impact of artificial intelligence on the UK’s health highlights the negatives that also come with the latest HealthTech. One key conclusion of the report is that users of Fitbits and other ‘smart’ IoT personal health tracking wearables pose a fundamental risk to the NHS.
Apps on smartphones and specialist health tracking wearables like the popular Fitbit devices are a hugely valuable source of big data on how the vital signs of users might indicate their health profile and highlight potential problems. These devices help us track our activity, such as how many steps we have taken in a day and how much intense exercise such as running or cycling and an approximation of calories. They can also monitor our sleep patterns, heart rate and other vital statistics throughout the day, during exercise and resting.
Generally, that’s a good thing. Smart health trackers have a lot of positives. They provide a valuable reminder and catalyst to keep active. The anonymised data sent back from them is building a huge treasure trove it is hoped will allow AI algorithms to spot important patterns whose correlation to impending health issues has not yet been realised or for which there is insufficient evidence to confirm. And they can offer a timely warning of irregularities that might lead to health issues being caught early enough to be dealt with effectively.
But according to the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges report, the health alerts they provide are also beginning to prove a problem for the NHS. There has been a surge in individuals visiting their GP or local A&E, panicked by alerts from their health apps and wearables. The problem is that the readings of health tracking wearables and apps are often not particularly accurate. And even when they are it can often be put down to normal fluctuations briefly breaking out of averages.
Without a health tracker, feeling perfectly fine, these aberrations wouldn’t even be noticed by the individual. But having them highlighted by tech, or an inaccurate reading suggesting hear rate or blood pressure has reached concerning levels, is provoking a flood of self-diagnosis that, if the trend were to continue on its current trajectory, could overwhelm the NHS by using up valuable, scarce resources.
The report does conclude that correctly managed personal healthtech has the potential to be a significant positive but warns that users have a responsibility to take readings with a pinch of salt and not clog up GP and emergency clinics if they feel perfectly fine but their Fitbit has told them they are having a heart attack. Or words to that effect.