The future of healthcare is moving outside of the hospital and inside your body.
Thus far in our Future of Health series, we discussed the trends set to reshape our healthcare system from a reactive to proactive service industry focused on preventing illness and injury. But what we haven't touched on in detail is the end user of this revitalized system: the patient. What will it feel like to live inside a healthcare system obsessed with tracking your well-being?
Predicting Your Future Health
Mentioned a few times in earlier chapters, we can't understate how big an impact genome sequencing (reading your DNA) will have on your life. By 2030, analyzing a single drop of your blood will tell you exactly what health issues your DNA makes you predisposed to over the course of your life.
This knowledge will allow you to prepare for and prevent a range of physical and mental conditions years, maybe decades, in advance. And when infants begin getting these tests as a normal process of their post-birth health review, we will eventually see an time where humans go through their entire lives free of preventable diseases and physical handicaps.
Tracking Your Body's Data
Being able to predict your long-term health will go hand-in-hand with continuously monitoring your current health.
We're already beginning to see this "quantified self" trend entering the mainstream, with 28% of Americans beginning to use wearable trackers as of 2015. Three-quarters of those people shared their health data with their app and with friends, and a majority have expressed a willingness to pay for professional health advice tailored to their collected data.
It’s these early, positive consumer indicators that are encouraging startups and tech giants to double down on the wearable and health tracking space. Smartphone manufacturers, like Apple, Samsung, and Huawei, are continuing to come out with ever more advanced MEMS sensors that measure biometrics like your heart rate, temperature, activity levels and more.
Meanwhile, medical implants are currently being tested that will analyze your blood for dangerous levels of toxins, viruses, and bacteria, as well as even testing for cancers. Once inside you, these implants will wirelessly communicate with your phone, or other wearable device, to track your vital signs, share health data with your doctor, and even release custom medicines straight into your bloodstream.
The best part is all this data is pointing to yet another sweeping change in how you manage your health.
Access to Medical Records
Traditionally, doctors and hospitals kept you from accessing your medical records, or at best, make it exceptionally inconvenient for you to access them.
One reason for this is that, until recently, we kept most health records on paper. But considering the staggering 400,000 deaths reported each year in the US that are linked to medical errors, inefficient medical record keeping is far from just a privacy and access issue.
Luckily, a positive trend now being adopted throughout most developed nations is the rapid transition to Electronic Health Records (EHRs). For example, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), in association with the HITECH act, is pushing US doctors and hospitals to provide interested patients with EHRs by 2015 or face major funding cuts. And thus far, the legislation has worked—to be fair though, a lot of work still needs to be done in the short term to make these EHRs easy to use, read, and share between hospitals.
Using Your Health Data
While it’s great that we’ll soon have complete access to our future and present health information, it could also pose a problem. Specifically, as future consumers and producers of personalized health data, what are we actually going do with all this data?
Having too much data can lead to the same result as having too little: inaction.
That’s why one of the big new industries set to grow over the next two decades is subscription based, personal health management. Basically, you’ll digitally share all your health data with a medical service via an app or website. This service will then monitor your health 24/7 and alert you about impending health issues, remind you when to take your medications, offer early medical advice and prescriptions, facilitate a virtual doctor appointment, and even schedule a visit at a clinic or hospital when needed, and on your behalf.
In all, these services will strive to make looking after your health as effortless as possible, so you don’t become overwhelmed or discouraged. This last point is especially important for those recovering from a surgery or injury, those suffering from a chronic medical condition, those with eating disorders, and those with addiction issues. This constant health monitoring and feedback will act as a support service to help people stay on top of their health game.
Moreover, these services are likely to be paid for in part or in full by your insurance company, as they’ll have a financial interest in keeping you as healthy as possible, for as long as possible, so you keep paying their monthly premiums. Chances are these services may one day become owned entirely by insurance companies, given how aligned their interests are.
Customized Nutrition and Diets
Related to the point above, all this health data will also allow health apps and services to tailor a diet plan to fit your DNA (specifically, your microbiome or gut bacteria, described in chapter three).
Common wisdom today tells us that all foods should affect us in the same way, good foods should make us feel better, and bad foods should make us feel bad or bloated. But as you might have noticed from that one friend who can eat ten donuts without gaining a pound, that simple black and white way of thinking about dieting doesn't hold salt.
Recent findings are beginning to reveal that the composition and health of your microbiome noticeably affects how your body processes foods, converts it to energy or stores it as fat. By sequencing your microbiome, future dieticians will be able to tailor a diet plan that better fits your unique DNA and metabolism. We will also one day apply this approach to a genome-customized exercise routine.
Throughout this Future of Health series, we've explored how science will finally bring an end to all permanent and preventable physical injuries and mental disorders over the next three to four decades. But for all these advances, none of them will work without the public taking a more proactive role in their health.
It’s about empowering patients to become partners with their caregivers. Only then will our society finally enter an age of perfect health.