From a GP on your smartphone to a virtual reality programme that cures anxiety, there’s a brave new world of health technology on the horizon
Words: Rosie Ifould
Imagine: you wake up with a nagging pain in your stomach. You’ve noticed it a few times recently. So you pick up your phone and check your fertility app, your food allergies app and the sleep app that measures your biorhythms, in case the data you’ve logged gives you a clue as to what’s going on. Next, you head to the bathroom and step on the scales, not to check your weight but to monitor your heart rate and send the reading to your health coach. Still unsure of the cause, you decide to get the pain checked out, but rather than take the morning off work you log in to your online doctor service, and within 20 minutes, you’re talking to a GP via a video link, who then emails a referral to a specialist. With a few minutes left before you have to leave for work, you ask your voice- activated personal assistant to play a meditation programme to take your mind off it all.
But this isn’t the future. This could quite easily have been you this morning.
Welcome to the brave new world of health technology. We’ve gone far, far beyond the Fitbit craze of a few years ago to a range of AI platforms, virtual reality programmes and wearable tech that now allow us to not just monitor our health and wellbeing, but actively improve it. “Health tech is in such an exciting phase,” says Rosa Glover, chief product officer of BioBeats, a company that specialises in artificial intelligence for healthcare. “Just as the world of online shopping revolutionised the way we buy clothes, new technology is changing the way we manage our health. It’s so much easier for individuals to research conditions and treatments.” Want to tackle your anxiety? There’s an app for that. Need to check the food you buy won’t trigger your allergies? There’s an app for that, too. There’s even a revolutionary new app – Natural Cycles – which, just last month, was approved as a method of contraception: a massive breakthrough in women’s health.
But it’s not just apps. The Amazon Echo you got for Christmas can save lives by reciting the instructions for how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or simply give you guided meditations or motivational pep-talks when you’re feeling stressed. With the help of a little cardboard contraption, your smartphone can be transformed into a virtual reality headset, through which you’ll be able to access programmes that help you manage anxiety, phobias, or even chronic pain. And instead of a smartwatch, experts predict that in just a few years you’ll be able to get a digital tattoo that monitors your vital signs and sends your data to your phone. Scientists at Waseda University in Japan already have the prototype.
This new technology is a game-changer for women. In our reproductive years, we see healthcare professionals almost a third more often than men. Not only does new health tech save time and energy – virtual GP appointments mean we won’t have to book time off work for a doctor’s appointment simply to get a repeat prescription – but the apps give us more insight and more control over our health. We have a wealth of personalised information at our fingertips and we can find out things about our bodies that we might have been too embarrassed to ask about before. In the last week, British Condoms have announced a new ‘smart’ condom that they claim will be able to detect STIs at the point of, ahem, use. And a recent survey showed that half of women aged 25 to 34 would use health-related technology, with over a quarter saying they would use a pregnancy app in the next five years.
“We’re seeing lots of new tech that helps people with specific conditions to lead a better quality of life,” says Richard Cooper of AXA PPP, part of the judging panel for the Health Tech & You Awards 2017, citing Elvie, a wearable device that helps women to strengthen their pelvic floor. This year’s shortlisted entries can currently be seen at the Design Museum.
But perhaps the biggest impact of health tech has been on our mental health, with everything from apps for managing anxiety to consultations with real therapists and virtual reality programmes that help you manage phobias. “Getting help for mental health issues can feel overwhelming so online therapy can be a great introduction,” says Louise Chunn, founder of therapy site welldoing. org. When there’s still so much stigma around mental health, let alone the hassle and prohibitive cost of going to see a therapist every week, tech can provide vital solutions.
It can also be really valuable if you’re not the kind of person who likes talking, suggests Glover – “we’re beginning to see the value in not having one-size-fits-all models.” You might be someone who prefers a virtual reality programme that gets you to focus on your breathing, rather than sitting with a therapist and discussing your anxiety.
In the next few years we might even find that tech changes the way healthcare providers operate in the ‘real’ world, suggests Chunn. “We’re likely to see ‘real life’ providers doing more to emulate the apps, by offering different pricing structures, shorter sessions, and availability that fits around you.”
But, she cautions, “just because an app is easy to use doesn’t mean it’s useful”. Apps aren’t subject to the same kind of scrutiny as medicines – although this could change, with the US Food and Drug Administration announcing plans to test some of the claims made by health tech companies. So, what is worth your time and money? We explore the latest breakthroughs and ask the experts for their verdicts.
See a GP through your smartphone
In the last 12 months, a wave of apps has launched that give you access to a GP – either through a live video appointment on your smartphone, or through a kind of Uber service where you can get a walk-in appointment within 90 minutes. One company – Babylon – has even developed an AI doctor (think a chatbot for medical diagnoses) that’s currently on trial with the NHS in a few areas.
Fed up with waiting weeks to see your GP? You can sign up to Push Doctor (pushdoctor.co.uk) for a monthly subscription of £20, which includes prescriptions and sick letters, or pay £20 for a one-off consultation with prescriptions, referrals and sick notes charged additionally. Once you’re logged in to the app, you just click to request an appointment and you’re talking to a registered UK GP within six minutes.
What the experts say
“If you want a doctor now and you don’t mind whether you know them or not, then many of these apps are perfect, provided you’re young and fairly healthy,” says GP Dr Ayan Panja. “But it’s still quite two-dimensional compared to a face-to-face consultation.” So, in short, if you’ve got a niggling worry or a minor ailment and you’re the kind of person who hates feeling like you’re wasting time (your own or the NHS’s), then this is a good hassle-free way of dealing with it.
Control your fertility with an app
Fertility apps are among the most popular forms of health app for young women. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – if you’re having sex then chances are you’re either trying to get pregnant or trying very hard not to. But now, you can download the first app registered as a form of contraception...
For £49.99, you can sign up for a year with the Natural Cycles birth control app (naturalcycles.com) and get a thermometer thrown in. You record your temperature twice a day, every day, and within a couple of months the app’s creators claim they will have enough data to predict your most fertile days to a high level of accuracy. It also takes other factors such as sperm survival, temperature fluctuations and cycle irregularities into account. The app not only detects ovulation and fertility, but also calculates accurate predictions for upcoming cycles. So you can use this information to avoid sex or really go for it, depending on whether you’re trying to avoid pregnancy or not. The team behind Natural Cycles claim it has a 93% success rate as a contraceptive.
What the experts say
“Any device that monitors the menstrual cycle is fallible as women don’t always ovulate predictably every month and even those with very regular cycles can sometimes have occasional months where ovulation doesn’t occur when expected,” says Professor Adam Balen, chair of the British Fertility Society. So, there’s still a little risk, but if you’re actually trying to get pregnant, then the app will help your chances of success.
Talk to a virtual therapist
Nearly 30% of all health apps are for mental health, according to the IMS Institute for Healthcare Infomatics. There’s a huge variety in what’s on offer, from apps that simply ask you to record your mood to platforms that connect you with a real licensed therapist so you can have a 24/7 pocket counsellor at your disposal.
Betterhelp.com is one of the platforms that connects you to a licensed therapist. You answer a few questions about why you want therapy and then you’re sent a ‘match’ in about 20 minutes. You can start emailing your therapist straight away, book ‘live’ sessions with them through Skype or take part in ‘groupinars’ with other users on topics such as anger management. It’s much cheaper than ‘live’ therapy, at $45 a week for unlimited sessions, whether that’s email chats, live messaging or talking via Skype.
What the experts say
Finding a therapist in real life can be costly, take time and feel awkward, so if you’re looking for a more gentle introduction to the world of therapy, apps can be great. But, says Chunn, there are important issues such as confidentiality you need to think about. “Ask yourself whether you feel comfortable your data is secure. And do you feel like you’re really being listened to?”
Scan your food for allergens
Nearly one in five people in the UK consider themselves to have a food allergy or intolerance, so this is an area with huge potential for growth. From diet-profiling apps, to those that scan barcodes for potential allergy triggers, to devices that sample your food for you – so you can avoid painful or even life-threatening encounters.
FoodMaestro (foodmaestro.me), developed in partnership with Guys and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust, lets you scan the barcodes from food packets to get instant feedback on its suitability, whether you’re gluten-intolerant, dairy-intolerant or following a low-FODMAP diet (the regular app is free, the FODMAP version costs £3.99). If you have IBS, you can track your food and keep a note of your symptoms to prevent future flair-ups.
Also, keep a look out for the NIMA sensor (nimasensor.com), a portable device that lets you drop a sample of your food into a special capsule to get an instant reading on its gluten levels. A new peanut allergy version should be available later this year.
What the experts say
“Innovations like these have the potential to be life-altering for sufferers,” says Cooper. “Especially at the point of diagnosis. The traditional way of getting a diagnosis for intolerance means weeks of suffering while you’re waiting to see specialists and keeping a food diary. Apps like FoodMaestro cut out all that waiting and let you manage your condition much more effectively.”
Tackle your anxiety with virtual reality
This is likely to become its own genre in the next few years, according to industry experts. “VR can be an effective component in treatments for a number of problems, including height phobias, animal phobias, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder,” says Professor Daniel Freeman of the University of Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry.
It’s currently in the testing stage, but Deep (exploredeep.com), a virtual reality platform for tackling anxiety, is already winning awards. Deep puts you in a mysterious underwater world. You’re connected to the game through a VR headset, but also a band around your diaphragm and through that you can move through the space using yogic breathing techniques. The team are launching a Kickstarter fund in May and hope to release a consumer version next year.
What the experts say
“The beauty of VR is that individuals know a computer environment is not real but their minds and bodies behave as if it is,” says Freeman. “People will much more easily face difficult situations in VR than in real life. This learning then transfers to the real world.” Expect a lot more VR in your life very, very soon.
Don’t forget to switch off
Why relying on devices too much can be a bad thing...
“Technology is more central to our lives than ever before. We’re so integrated with our devices that psychologically, we’re cyborgs,” says Dr Richard Graham, a specialist in anxiety and online addiction at the Nightingale Clinic. And while the latest developments in technology have life- changing potential, experts warn that they can make us ‘cognitively inflexible’. “Some technology encourages us to be passive, and hand over our own agency,” says Graham. In other words, your willpower could decrease if you’re assigning all your decision making powers to your phone. And, if you’re the kind of person who is prone to anxiety and overthinking, then your health apps could actually occupy an unhealthy place in your life, as you neurotically check your heart rate every hour. Before you go online, “think about your motivation for doing it,” says Graham. Ask yourself, why do I need to do this, what’s the purpose? You’ll be able to decide very quickly whether you need to be online right now. Ironically, the answer to overusing apps could be another app. The Moment app logs every single minute you spend on your phone to show you the reality of your dependence, and lets you set daily limits if you feel you’re spending too much time on there. And if you do nothing else, make sure you switch off your notifications. Most of them are unnecessary and only exist to reinforce your dependency on your phone. Turn them all off. Right now.
Photography: Gallerystock, iStock