A lot has been written about the Fourth Industrial Revolution; about how society stands on the precipice of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way in which we live, work, and relate to one another. Characterised by a fusion of technologies that blurs the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres—this new revolution has put technology at the centre of its catalytic engine and no sector is better placed for change than that of biology and medicine.
The question of what the future of digital health has in store for us is one which I am addressing through my current research, and the central role of technology within it, exploring the future of us as individuals, as a community and as a species.
There are of course multiple large-scale forces in play influencing the way healthcare will be accessed and delivered in the future. The largest of these is the macroeconomic impact of caring for a growing and ageing population with changing disease patterns from acute to chronic forms.
Almost every nation on Earth is fighting internally to develop new ways to provide healthcare to its citizens, preventing government level bankruptcies in the process. But greater than this force is the cultural contextual shift which is occurring in the psyche of each one of us as we begin to view healthcare through a different lens altogether.
Goal number three of the UN Sustainable Development Goals, good health and well-being, is a theme I have dedicated my career in. Globally, the healthcare system is fundamentally broken. In fact, it’s ironic that we even use the word “health” in its title.
It has become sick. Episodic, transactional and focused too much on pathogenesis and disease. What if we were to create one which put well-being at its centre? Incremental in nature and holistic on the individual. One which looks towards augmenting health rather than mitigating illness and incorporates prevention and well-being as fundamental pillars of health.
As a society, we already have become accustomed to online interactions for everything from banking to travel bookings and now we are beginning to see that encroach upon medical consultations. The fulcrum of a patient’s care is shifting from being their family physician to their healthcare coordinator or lifestyle coach, interactions which are increasingly being augmented by technologies such as Artificially Intelligent bots and will soon be replaced almost entirely.
By 2030, technology is set to become smarter, more encompassing and more personalised. The digital signature of everything we do, touch and use will be analysed and used to direct the way in which we lead our lives. Apple’s Siri has already transformed the way in which we use our phones to search for things. Amazon’s Alexa is currently changing the way we run and interact with our homes.
Imagine a health concierge of the future. A personalised digital health assistant that is constantly monitoring our lives. On waking up, all of the biological outputs from your morning routines are analysed to indicate the status of your internal biochemistry. Devices implanted under your skin feed additional data into a centralised cloud of your own individual health information.
This integrated data is then sent into your daily schedulers to ensure that you have precisely the right amount of exercise planned into your day. The same information being fed into your CPUs—culinary planning units—to calculate the meals you should consume to balance your nutritional needs.
The taxi service you use for work is automatically instructed to drop you off two blocks before your office location encouraging you to earn extra health points. Daily health alerts are sent to your doctor and spouse. And the purpose of these points? Used to calculate your insurance premiums or maybe even access to certain other daily services and facilities in our lives.
I’ve used that term a few times now—well-being. And I wonder how many of you have thought about what it really means? Many people I speak to, think it is the same as wellness. A step before disease, akin to prevention compared to cure. I suppose that in some ways it does include those aspects of nutrition, fitness, sleep and recovery but in its truest sense well-being is much broader than that.
As a definition, it means the state of being comfortable, healthy and happy. A visit to Wikipedia or Google opens a Pandora’s box of frameworks and categorisations, all of which distil down to two main components—the physical and the psychological.
Most popular theories include the well-being of the individual’s environment as well as their community. The great thing about this lack of consensus is that it is open to interpretation and allows us the freedom to test our own theories and practices for what works for us.
Life, we know, is not about the destination, but about the journey instead. We get so caught up in focusing on the final goal that life just passes us by in the process. In many ways well-being is the same.
We tend to think about it as a goal to work towards—running that half marathon, obtaining that yoga pose, losing weight to fit into that special dress, and so many others, but the truth is that well-being is not suddenly achieved once we attain these goals, it is with us all the way along the process too.
I believe that the journey of well-being, when done right, is relative, is transient and ever evolving. My journey may not necessarily be appropriate to be compared with yours, the depth or intensity of that journey will constantly be changing with time and will. If done correctly, it will keep growing with me. Most of all the journey never ends and each of our personalised journeys head in our own unique direction.
In the worlds of digital health and future technologies in which I play each day, I have come to realise that well-being is bigger than sickness and health, it cannot be defined by a clear set of boundary conditions or prescribed by a strict formula but is in the end a personalised journey of experimentation.
The beauty of this journey is that, should we wish, it can be a lifelong process of trial and error, learning and unlearning, fun and experimentation.
So, I invite you to begin your journey today. Stay well.
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