Choose the healthy option

If you have your health, you have everything — so the saying goes. The good news is we are living longer, curing more diseases and treating illnesses more effectively than ever before with advances in medical science and technology.

But, so far, innovation has been mostly based on averages and generalisations — medicines designed to treat everyone with a given condition or healthy living advice aimed at broad groups. As human beings we are all utterly unique, and yet so much of our healthcare is generic and ‘one size fits all’.

That is about to change.

We now stand on the cusp of a new era in healthcare in which the benefits of progress and innovation will be made personally relevant to each and every one of us.

Making the connections

This revolution is being made possible by data. Crucially, the data about us and our lifestyles. It stands to reason that the more healthcare providers — from doctors to researchers to insurance companies — know about us, the better they can tailor their services to our needs.

Big players like IBM and Philips have divisions dedicated to healthcare, working with state health services, medical and pharmaceutical companies, and leading cancer research facilities. Healthcare is certainly one of the key sectors driving growth of the so-called Internet of Things — connected devices and sensors that can talk to each other — which is opening up new ways to access and share data.

And we are already plugging in to it. We can track our activity, sleep, heart rate and just about anything else with apps on the smartphone in our pocket and wearable technology such as Fitbit. According to research by Accenture, 49% of patients globally would be happy to wear technology that measures and tracks their health and lifestyle, if they are not doing so already.

The Health app in Apple’s newer iOS versions is set up to receive data on everything from our Body Mass Index to the state of our sex lives. New devices and new apps will offer more ways to gather data about our lives that allows us to make decisions about our lifestyle and health.

This is the Internet of Me, where we are at the centre of our connected lives.

It’s not hard to see how such information could be used by doctors, researchers and other healthcare providers to develop better drugs, products and services. Better because they are tailored to us and our specific needs. The more data we make available, the more innovation that’s possible. And because it’s our health that stands to benefit, the reasons to share more of our personal information are compelling.

So what’s stopping us leaping into this bright new future? Well, this is very sensitive information we’re talking about. There have been well-publicised leaks and breaches of patient medical records in very recent history. Sharing so much data might make wonderful things possible but that has to be balanced against our need for privacy and security.

Patients rewarded

To really understand the benefits and challenges, let’s go back to how the traditional doctor-patient relationship works. We trust doctors. We let them prod parts of us that don’t often see daylight and we tell them things about us we might not share with anyone else. This frankness, discretion and confidentiality are a product of the Hippocratic Oath, the guiding principles of the medical profession. It’s easy to see why doctors consistently top polls for the most trustworthy professions.

We know that if we keep information back from our doctors it could prevent them doing their job of diagnosing what’s wrong with us. OK, so we might be a bit economical with the truth about the exact number of glasses of wine we drink per week or our chocolate-to-exercise ratio. But when we really need answers to a medical problem we know we have to be straight.

In an appointment usually lasting just minutes, doctors have to get enough information out of us to inform what are often serious decisions. They back those decisions with what else they know about us ­– from their personal knowledge of us as a patient and from our medical records. That leaves a whole lot of information about us and our lifestyles — including factors possibly relevant to our immediate ailment — they simply won’t have at their disposal.

Imagine if our doctors could see how much exercise we took, what we ate, how much we drank, what sort of stress we were under, how we were sleeping and more — and get real rock-solid data (not a sanitised version or what we can remember when asked). Yes, that’s a lot of very personal information. But what if that enabled our doctors to not only make a quicker, more accurate diagnosis, but to predict and preempt likely future health problems?

Now think about the wider picture, because our health and wellbeing doesn’t begin and end with our doctors. Beyond state services there are private medical plans, the insurance schemes that pay for them, plus all the other lifestyle products and services that have a bearing on our health.

A matter of trust

But there remains the problem of this great trove of very personal and sensitive information being held by third parties. We would have to trust not only the organisations we directly deal with but also those they collaborate and share data with. After all, collaboration and sharing is at the heart of the transformative innovation we are talking about.

We should bear in mind that even paper-based medical records are subject to loss, inaccuracy and leaks. They are only as secure as the systems used to manage them and the trustworthiness and competence of the people handling them.

Of course, bringing together a much broader range of personal information and making it available to more organisations could mean that the implications are more serious if things to go wrong. Anyone asking to access such sensitive data is going to have to convince us that they take security and privacy very seriously indeed.

Perhaps the answer is to turn things around by asking this question: Apart from our doctor, who can we truly trust with this degree of information about us? The answer is: Ourselves.

A true Internet of Me would make possible not only the benefits that come from greater sharing of our personal data but would also give us complete control over it by handing us ownership. Our data on the device or storage of our choice. For a start, it would mean the first to benefit from a 360-degree view of our health and lifestyle would be us. When presented together, all that data from our various apps and devices becomes much more than the sum of its parts.

In fact, the only way for personal data to be totally complete, up to date and 100% accurate is for it to be held by us, the ones who are generating it in real time.

The software already exists that allows us to aggregate our personal data from different sources and hold it securely ourselves. We can then choose who can access and use it depending on the benefit it brings us.

And the benefits are many and varied. Medical records and other vital health information would follow us around so it is available to medics when needed, wherever we are. Healthcare providers could monitor and manage treatment remotely, offering us guidance based on data feedback.

Abnormal data or dangerous trends could be spotted, warning medics — and us — of potential problems and allowing for earlier intervention. Advice and encouragement for a healthier lifestyle could help us make better decisions with rewards and incentives from medical insurers that are more personalised than those offered today.

The list goes on and will continue to grow with each new innovation.

And there are other less direct benefits. We could choose to make our information available to medical researchers. That could open up a vast pool of real-time health, lifestyle and demographic data that could speed the development of new cures and treatments. Such information could be just as valuable when made anonymous, allowing us to maintain greater privacy. Third parties wouldn’t always need to hold our data themselves, with the processing done on an app at device level.

Data-driven innovations by healthcare providers are also slashing waste and saving money, something vital to our economies as we live longer and find cures for more killer diseases. In a 2013 report, McKinsey suggested that new innovations in the use of technology and data could save the U.S. between $300billion and $450billion in healthcare spending. The potential for greater efficiency and economy is huge.

So, a simple step we can all take towards improving our health and wellbeing is to embrace the idea of sharing our personal data in return for benefits that are tailored to us. And this is possible under our control and on our terms. That really is a healthy outlook.