The Coming Digital Nervous System
Writing in the New York Times recently entrepreneur and former director of the M.I.T. Media Lab Frank Moss laid out a vision of what he called consumer health. It’s a vision to link together a slew of technologies that are already developed and maturing.
Moss envisages a “digital nervous system” comprising inconspicuous wireless sensors on the body, in clothing and round the home to monitor vital signs and the daily activities that affect health. The data gathered from these devices is then analyzed by software and displayed in ways that help the user understand the health implications of what they’re doing. This is an innovative form of real-time feedback, helping users to develop greater awareness of their behavior; we covered some of these “ambient health” developments in a previous blog. If anomalies show up in the monitoring (e.g. accelerated heart rate, raised blood pressure), the system would guide the user to run basic tests and take the necessary action: modify behavior, or take OTC medication, or set up a remote medical consultation, or visit a physician. Another key piece in Moss’s vision is apps on the user’s smartphone to remind the user of doctor’s orders such as taking medication on time, getting exercise, eating the right food and staying properly hydrated.
All this technology is alluring for geeks and the sort of people who already own the sort of devices featured on The Quantified Self – “A place for people interested in self-tracking to gather, share knowledge and experiences, and discover resources.” It’s digital technologies that enable developers to combine the light, sound, touch, motion and location sensors of smartphones with processing and communication power to create thousands of health-related applications. However, the key shift needed to make this vision work is not technology; it’s for people in all states of health to become more active and better informed participants in their own health care.
This is a promising development for pharmaceutical companies. Sooner or later all their hard work in meticulously-controlled environment of the lab has to find its place in the messy world of physicians and patients. As things stand, medication non-adherence needlessly incurs massive financial and health costs. Failure to take medications as prescribed is reckoned to cause 10 percent of hospital admissions and 125,000 deaths annually; non-adherence results in $100 billion each year in unnecessary hospital spending and costs the economy $300 billion per year, including hospital re-admissions, extra provider visits and medical complications.
Pharmaceutical companies have developed high levels of expertise in addressing the biological dimensions of disease at a molecular level. Now as digital ecosystems evolve, they will need to become expert in addressing the thought processes of physicians and patients, and the decisions and behavior that flow from them. Innovations aiming to make a substantial difference will need to influence behavior at hundreds of choice points throughout every day. Digital technology offers great scope for doing precisely this, and up next we'll take a look at some recent examples.