Will health technology ever be as cool as Star Trek?

3 August 2014

NP ANDY McLACHLAN enthuses about his love of technology and science fiction (even the really bad stuff with rubber monsters, polystyrene boulders, and fake eyebrows...) and how cool new tech might fit into the future of healthcare.

With the explosion of new mobile, electronic, time saving (and okay, just a few timewasting) gizmos over the last few years, I think it’s fair to say I am in my element. I am often to be found looking intently at the newest smart phone/tablets/watches in Harvey Norman, and if I didn’t have a mortgage the size of the Greek national debt, I would be an early adopter of almost all new electronic thingies. I am also a bit tight, so that doesn’t help either.

The other day we were in a meeting and a colleague produced a standard (dumb?) cell phone and proceeded to text ... the response was amazing. People looked longingly at the antiquated phone and oohed and ahhhed as they reminisced about their own hazy memories of their ancient lo-tech communication devices. For me, this was six weeks ago, as I have only just upgraded to a new, well, four versions old, smart phone. I love it, love it, love it, and I’m not alone, with New Zealand apparently having more mobile phone plans than people - and only 5 per cent of adults confessing to not owning a mobile phone - in a recent survey. We are one of the highest users of social media in the world, and we are all experiencing the most rapid uptake of technology ever and it doesn’t look like it will slow down soon. Even my mum has a tablet and keeps trying to friend me on Facebook. The use of sensory-type technology to monitor sleep, fitness, diet etc. will increase >500 per cent in the next three years. I’m riding this electronic wave like a crazy silver surfer, from the comfort of my well-stuffed sofa.

At home, my kids are incredibly comfortable with using mobile devices ... maybe too comfortable. I only allow free games (got to have some standards), but as technology takes over our lives, I can’t help thinking as a healthcare professional: we have to considered and careful. Apparently, there are more than 100,000 mobile health apps on the market, and I’m sure not all will be useful or evidenced-based or even work.

I attended the Australasian Long Term Conditions conference (#ALTCC14) recently and was excited by the presentations about new health-related technology, such as patient portals, remote/robotic surgery, small booths where you can pop in for a quick check with a health professional on a video monitor, all happening somewhere now.

One that caught my attention was a smart house concept where sensors interacted with the residents. The presenter mentioned some useful applications such as identifying if the resident had fallen and the house contacting medical help. I thought of another use: “where’s my glasses, house?”, which would reply in a metallic voice -“behind the fish fingers in the freezer ... dumbo."

How much “time to care” would be freed up by giving each nurse an integrated, secure mobile device linked to the patient monitoring system, electronic notes with medication, and observation chart apps that could be viewed and updated by all involved in the patients care in real time, including access for the patient? Scanning apps to ensure the patient you are giving meds to is who it is for and in-built decision support aids to flag, drug interactions, or guide evidenced-based care, videos to teach patients about managing their condition, and in-built camera to talk to distant consultants who can see and assess the patient virtually and prescribe appropriate medication remotely and immediately ... Of course, how long would it be before I dropped it down the toilet?

There is no doubt that technology can be a health enabler and will be a force for good. Change will happen; we will have new and cool ways to do things in a few years, including some things even Star Trek didn’t think of (IMPOSSIBLE, I SAY!). However, maybe what’s important to people in their darkest hour is not always around being “connected” but rather the full attention of a supportive human being - and certainly not the eerie beam of a smart phone screen lighting up the face of the nurse updating their Facebook status … "at work, 3am with a dying man with no family. Feeling sad. LOL"