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Future of Healthcare: Preventative Medicine

“Prevention is about helping people stay healthy, happy and independent for as long as possible.”

By: Adi Gaskell, Katerva’s Futurist 

We have all encountered colleagues who have struggled to work, despite being visibly far from their best, their every cough and sniffle threatening to pass on whatever malady they’re heroically battling through onto us.  Research from Curtin University should perhaps come as no surprise, therefore, when it highlights the productivity damage sickness can cause.

“Despite a common belief that young workers are healthy, we found that more than half of the young adults involved in this study experienced multiple health conditions,” the researchers explain.  “We also found that there was a significant link between multiple health conditions in young workers and poor productivity in the workplace.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, musculoskeletal conditions were most harmful to productivity, with sleep deprivation and mental health also linked to poor performance at work.  The researchers believe that with chronic illnesses on the rise, it’s increasingly important that healthcare systems provide as much attention towards keeping us healthy as they do mending us when we’re unwell.

Keeping us well

This should perhaps not come as a surprise, as the World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  It’s no longer sufficient, therefore, to only step in when conditions have become sufficiently serious as to warrant hospitalization. Interventions must be earlier, and more frequent, with the aim to ensure people are healthier for longer.

This focus on prevention was evident in a recent strategy paper for the UK’s National Health Service, which highlighted prevention as one of the three main priorities for the service going forward.

“Prevention is about helping people stay healthy, happy and independent for as long as possible,” he says. This means reducing the chances of problems from arising in the first place and, when they do, supporting people to manage them as effectively as possible.”

The logic is unmistakable, as physical and mental health are clearly linked to a better standard of living, and earlier detection of health issues is strongly linked to the successful treatment of those conditions.

Technology to the rescue

Given that preventative interventions obviously require a greater number of interactions than is currently the case between most people and their healthcare provider, it’s likely that technology will play a crucial role in supporting this shift.  For instance, Bulgarian startup Checkpoint Cardio collects a range of cardiac and biometric data from a wearable device, with the ultimate aim of providing both preventative and early diagnostic services.

The data from the wearable is sent to a team of nurses, who analyze it in a command center with broad similarities to a call center.  A nurse can be monitoring up to 50 people at a time, but the resourcing challenges of such a setup lends itself to an automated solution as the standard.

Technologies such as the Apple Watch have also been used in a preventative capacity in recent years, not least via a partnership the tech giant undertook with health insurer Vitality, which was documented in a study from RAND.  The company were primarily tapping into the activity tracking capabilities of the watch, but the watch is also able to act as an ECG device to monitor for abnormal heart rhythms.  Research has expressed concern that such devices may be providing inaccurate readings, and this is a concern picked up on by the medical industry, with doctors commenting on the reliability of such devices, but the trend is clear for all to see.

For instance, recent research from the University of Utah, highlights how wearable sensors could detect changes in our heart that could predict heart failure several days before an issue actually occurs.  The research explored the problem of readmissions to hospitals among the 6.2 million Americans currently living with heart failure.

“This study shows that we can accurately predict the likelihood of hospitalization for heart failure deterioration well before doctors and patients know that something is wrong,” the researchers explain.  “Being able to readily detect changes in the heart sufficiently early will allow physicians to initiate prompt interventions that could prevent rehospitalization and stave off worsening heart failure.”

Data-driven healthcare

Such a preventative transformation is likely to require a significantly larger role for data than is currently seen in healthcare.  The quantified self movement is affording us a greater insight into our health and wellbeing, but much of this data remains obscured from the healthcare sector.

Efforts are underway to rectify that situation, however, with the likes of Swiss co-operative Healthbank leading the way via their recent partnership with German startup Thryve that sees data from around 200 wearable devices aggregated into a single location for each patient. 

These data marketplaces use a combination of artificial intelligence and behavioral psychology to encourage people to act in a healthy way.  Research from the University of Michigan highlights how effective this can be, with the study showing that nudges can encourage greater medical adherence among patients.

Pioneers, such as Iora Health, then partner this with health coaches, who support people in making the lifestyle changes they need to adopt healthier lifestyles.  Indeed, the coaches are arguably the most important role in the Iora organization, and are the centrepiece around which the entire service revolves.

“Our Health Coaches are relationship builders between the patients and their care teams,” the company says. “They are screened and hired for their ability to connect deeply with people because our Health Coaches are more than caregivers.”

Research has shown such health coaching to be an effective way of reducing blood sugar levels for diabetes patients, with research in Denmark showing a 6% reduction after the introduction of coaching.  This is six times the improvement the International Diabetes Foundation regard as significant.

There are clear pockets of change throughout the healthcare world that point in a more preventative direction, and through these, it seems inevitable that the industry will gradually move towards a vision more in keeping with the World Health Organisation’s definition of health.

If you loved this article–our ‘Future of’ series will explore new topics released weekly every Thursday–stay tuned!