Digital health!

When it comes to health questions, many people now trust the Internet more than their own doctor

by Aleksandar Stojanovic

Digital health!
Digital health!

When it comes to health questions, many people now trust the Internet more than their own doctor. The web is quickly becoming "Dr. Google" for emancipatory patients who no longer want to just be "patient". Digital media are therefore already shaking the foundations of the healthcare system.

That said, even many digital thought leaders often only consider standards when it comes to digital health: websites, Apps, forums and digital services for medical professionals. Yet however promising this may appear, it is barely a small taste of what awaits us. A few weeks ago, the first US citizen from the baby boomer generation officially retired. In Europe, this will happen in around four years' time, since the baby boomer years in Europe trailed a little behind the USA, beginning in the mid-1950s. This massive wedge of the population will primarily use its free time to look after and maintain mind and body, and restore them quickly in the event of illness. Healthcare is becoming the central aspect of life; the individual demand is great and the power to express individual perspectives in broader society is already proven: after all, we still talk about the legendary 'generation of 68', the prototype of the revolutionary.

You don't have to be a gifted clairvoyant to foresee the healthcare system crumbling under this stress. Fortunately, however, we are currently on the eve of a digital revolution in healthcare.

At the forefront of this revolution is Connected Health. Specifically, Connected Health means gathering information from all available resources and making use of it. The electronic patient folder is a relatively well-known, albeit poorly-designed example: the aim of this folder is to enable doctors to exchange information about health status, diagnoses and therapies and to document their joint patients' prescribing history.

The potential for this concept, however, is being driven more by the ambitions of technology companies such as Microsoft and Google. These companies have entered this market of tomorrow with comprehensive platforms, with Google initially halting the service at the end of 2011 in view of the still considerable adaptation hurdles. There is no shortage of suppliers, however - start-up companies such as patientslikeme.com and others are showing with smart concepts just what solid successes can be achieved.

Closely associated with Connected Health are what is commonly known as "Body Area Networks". With these networks, our own bodies are subjected to permanent diagnostic monitoring through sensors that are either stuck on, sewn into our clothing or even implanted. There are now numerous applications, ranging from classic pulse meters to complex specialist sensors for the ongoing measurement of the blood sugar level. RFID stomach probes, body temperature-measuring bathroom mirrors, digital scales and other devices are constantly expanding the personal database.

For individual doctors, this flood of information will be insurmountable, but with artificial intelligence, striking patterns can be analysed, information combined and exact diagnoses achieved. Generally speaking, no tele-medicine or even one-to-one treatment will be the immediate consequence. Instead, a basis is created for a digital assistant on healthy living: the smartphone will tell us the right time to take our medicine, to eat or recommend a snooze based on real-time data from our body.

The promise: therapies and treatments are only taken up in clearly delineated cases. Ongoing monitoring provides a preventative way of stopping health problems from even developing, or allows them to be spotted so early that their treatment consumes only small numbers of resources. This will extend to the point at which information from all users will be collated and predictions regarding epidemics or epidemic distribution patterns can be made based on comprehensive network analyses.

Ultimately, all of this will not prevent people from falling ill and requiring care. In the first instance, doctors are actually consulted which should - despite fears to the contrary - provide them with adequate employment. In terms of care, however, we will begin experiencing digitally supported domestic concepts and the broad use of care robots.

The future of digital health is in any case somewhat comparable with the story of the MP3. The key to success - like Apple's success concept - will be in the consistent establishment of coherent digital ecosystems. Right at the heart of them will be people and their subjective user experience. Anyone who thinks purely in terms of technology, however, will miss - as the MP3-inventors of the Fraunhofer Institute did in the past - the true potential.

Paradoxically, it is actually the digital revolution that will put people and their needs back in the spotlight.

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