Towards smarter health information | Sunday Observer

Towards smarter health information

When Apple unveiled a series of gadgets last month in Cupertino, USA, many tech journalists paid particular attention to the smallest of them - the Apple watch Series 3. Apart from telling the time and taking your calls, it can also monitor your heart.

Yes, you read that correctly. It can monitor your heart rate (no probes to the chest needed) and even warn you when it becomes irregular.

This could potentially save you from a heart attack. It is early days yet and over the next few years, Apple and other manufacturers will improve these “personal fitness and health” devices or wearables to the point where they will become highly accurate.

Wearables

This is a new trend in health care, with both pros and cons. You no longer have to run to the clinic every few days, but you also face the risk of these gadgets being not 100 percent accurate right now, unlike the precision instruments available at a clinic or hospital. However, they can give you some idea of your health status.

The Apple Watch is among the new wave of wearables that will let people take care of their health concerns without professional medical intervention. And if you do need that, there is always telemedicine, where you can consult a health professional living far away, via the Internet.

One of the most exciting new smart gadgets is a new “no-blood” glucose measurement device. People living with diabetes have to prick their fingers to check their blood sugar levels anywhere from one to seven times a day.

This can be very painful over a period of time. But now, there is a better way to monitor blood sugar.

This week, the US Food and Drug Administration approved the first, at-home, needleless system for continuously monitoring glucose for people with diabetes.

The system, called FreeStyle Libre Flash, and manufactured by the Washington DC based Abbott Laboratories, allows users to forgo finger-pricking for up to 10 days at a time.

The Flash is essentially a small, circular plastic sensor that sits on top of the skin and detects blood sugar from a small wire that goes under the skin beneath the sensor.

People can insert it themselves using an applicator that works somewhat like a rubber stamp.

The best thing about it is the price: It will be less than Rs.10,000. (Even a normal blood glucose meter costs approx Rs.6,000).

Once people have applied the sensor on their arms, they can wave a mobile device a little smaller than a smartphone in front of it to read glucose levels.

It takes about 12 hours for the wire to become adjusted to the wearer’s body, but afterwards the device takes continuous data that tracks blood sugar over time for over a week. Afterwards, you peel the sensor off slowly, and apply a new one.

Routinely

Ideally, this would encourage people with diabetes to check their blood sugar more routinely. Already, the FreeStyle Libre Flash is available in 41 other countries, the Chicago Tribune reported.

But, there is an even better technique on the way. In case you think that “wearables,” are cool, wait till you come across the “in-the-skin-ables” or “tattoo-ables”, which is a process injecting into the skin ink that is designed to change colour when the chemistry of the surrounding body tissue changes.

The thought is that tattoo ink can get closer to the action than wearables, which remain outside the body. The ink colour changes with varying levels of sodium, glucose, or acidity (i.e., pH).

This idea looks quite interesting but seems still a bit far from real life usage. The developers will have to get past a number of technical hurdles, but nothing in this list is insurmountable even with existing technology. Give it a couple more years and these tattoos could be everywhere, literally.

Here are some of the current problems associated with this technology: What if the surrounding tissue does not always mirror what is in the blood or deeper in the body.

Thus tattoo ink may not always be able to tell you what you are really interested in, such as, sodium or glucose levels in the blood.

The ink also has to be stable enough and remain in one place over time,due to the sweat, friction, sun exposure, bathing, perfume and all the other things that you may do to your skin.

Testing will need to determine how the ink may appear with different tattoo sizes, designs, and locations and how various skin colours and textures may affect the appearance and interpretation of the colours.

While wearables are easily removable, tattoos are not.

If your tattoo is visible to others, you may be faced with everyone saying “your blood sugar doesn’t look good, better get it checked out.”

In other words, your health information may be more public than you want it to be. You may want to place the tattoo in an “invisible” location, but this may not be convenient if you have to take readings quite often.

Barcodes

The idea of these tattoos is intriguing and opens up future possibilities, ranging from your doctor also being your tattoo artist to having barcodes on your body (several movies already depict such a future).

There are other developments such as, “smart underwear” that can warn you if your health signs are not good and reduce the pain from existing conditions such as back pain.

Researchers in the US have developed a “smart, mechanized undergarment” that combines wearable technology and biomechanics to reduce stress on the lower back.

Their device, presented at the American Society of Biomechanics conference in August, consists of two fabric sections that fit over the chest and legs made of nylon, Lycra and polyester.

Those sections are connected by straps across the middle of the back, with rubber at the lower back. When activated, either by double-tapping the shirt or over a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone, stresses on the lower back are put onto the fabric instead.

Another double-tap releases the straps again, so that the wearer can sit down. Next, the team wants to see if they can automatically engage the clothing, rather than having it manually activated.

We are entering an era in which health information will become more accessible for everyone, without the inconvenience.

One can already know a lot about diseases and medicine from the Internet and wearables and smart clothing will make health info even more personal.

However, we have to strike a balance here, without depending too much on modern gadgetry. It is important to make lifestyle changes from food to exercise that will keep illness at bay in the first place. 

Comments

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.