The smartwatch was supposed to usher in an age of consumer health empowerment. It would continuously track a number of physiologic and (eventually) molecular biomarkers. Together with information tracked on your phone, this would create a truly personalized health profile, singlehandedly solving the ever-increasing pressure that chronic disease, aging populations, stressed payer and provider systems, and ballooning drug development costs are putting on the healthcare system. It’s safe to say this hasn’t materialized in any meaningful way yet.
While we still need considerable technological innovations, the main bottleneck is a lack of validation of the medical insights these devices generate. The tempting hope to achieve economies of scale in healthcare may lead us just to slap a wristband on large numbers of consumers to track their vital signs over time, or collect massive amounts of electronic health record data and call it a (Big Data) day. But biology is complex. The sheer number of molecular interactions that make you … you, remains more or less baffling.
Medicine has made tremendous progress over the last few decades, and innovative therapies are devised daily in labs around the world to attempt to deal with our daunting biological complexity. But Big Data strategies alone are unlikely to facilitate the level of disruption that too many are touting. “Garbage in, garbage out”, as the trusted adage goes. Or maybe more apt: “data overload in, no information out” (admittedly it’s less catchy).
A more comprehensive approach is needed to better understand health and disease across people’s lifetimes, and to leverage this knowledge to build novel therapies. This is one area where tech companies can provide a meaningful contribution to medicine; by building the tools to collect detailed and continuous diagnostic information at the level of the individual. The resulting boost in real-world evidence could generate robust and personalized medical profiles, transforming Big Data into Precision Data.
The tech world is often quick to dismiss “traditional” healthcare as slow and bloated, and there is some truth to that. But to push the sorely needed transformation within healthcare, technology players and today’s healthcare stakeholders will have to collaborate. And it will be up to the innovators to build tools that borrow from the concepts of lean development, minimal viable products, and platform technologies. But at the same time they must remain keenly aware of the need for medical validation, regulation, and scientific rigor.
To make this a reality, it will be imperative that new medical technologies, drugs and therapies are co-developed with pharma and clinical researchers as early as possible in the drug development process. If these medtech co-development cycles are successful, the result will be increased standardization that can connect the dots between the data collected by millions of wearables and real outcomes.
Hans Daneels is co-founder and CEO of Byteflies, a Belgian-American wearable health company.