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Monday [20.11.17]3 min read

The truth about health tracking devices

Technology has been useful in helping us recognise when we may be sick for some time. People have been Googling their symptoms against doctors’ advice for years now to falsely discover that their common cold is actually the extremely rare Chikungunya virus. But what if technology could accurately tell you that you’re sick before any symptoms occur at all? Better yet, what if it could actually help you feel better?

When the Apple Watch was first announced back in 2014 it was hyped as a futuristic health tracking device that could monitor things like blood pressure, stress levels and heart activity. After a few issues in development however, the product launched as more of a ‘nice-to-have’ luxury fitness tracker than must-have healthcare phenomenon.

3 years down the track and it seems that Apple is still chasing their original goals, with the new Series 3 model literally being marketed as something of a life-saving device. While it sounds ambitious, they may not actually be far off the mark.

Video: - Apple

Scientists tend to agree that the device on your wrist – whether Apple or other – can do much more than simply count your steps and track your sleep.

A research article published in PLOS Biology found that these common wearables may be fantastic indicators of impending ill-health.

Speaking to New Scientist, Michael Snyder of Stanford University said a year of using biosensors helped him to accurately self-diagnose a case of Lyme disease, simply from the device indicating that his temperature and heart rate were up, while his blood oxygen was down.

Snyder and his team followed this up with 40 volunteers using smartwatches for two years, and reached the conclusion that wearables “can get very good at sensing when something’s amiss."

“I’m predicting that your smartwatch will be able to alert you before you get sick, or confirm that you’re sick if you’re feeling a bit off,” Snyder said.

“If your watch says you’re coming down with something, you’ll know to go lie down instead of going out drinking and dancing.”

And that’s just what’s happening today, so whatever is on the cards for tomorrow, goes far beyond this.

IBM is working on ‘lab on a chip’ technology, with the aim of creating a pocket-sized device that could tell by analysing a single drop of bodily fluid whether you’re set to develop a life-changing illness such as Alzheimer's.

Doctors could then either head the illness off at the pass, or – if we haven’t sorted a cure for the given illness – begin suggesting preventative measures to stave the disease off.

It sounds like a wonderful way to recognise and combat diseases that can ruin lives and tear families apart before they get to that drastic point. But just how comfortable should we be with the likes of IBM, Apple or Google storing that level of personal information?

Simply finding a GP who you trust and are comfortable with can be a daunting prospect – and doctors swear an oath that could see them lose their jobs if they share your private information.

But the major companies of Silicon Valley? Your data is their product. Facebook and Google aren’t free, you’re just not paying money to use them, you’re handing over your personal information. In the 21st century, data has surpassed oil as the world’s most valuable resource.

So you'd better believe that tech companies will push the limits of privacy laws when it comes to sharing your personal health – especially when there are billions to be made from it.

Coming down with a cough? Suddenly you’ll start being served with ads for Vicks and Lemsip. A bout of gastro? The offers for discounted Imodium will flood in. Hayfever’s kicking in? Here’s the closest place to get a pack of antihistamines.

Which is all very convenient. But what about when it’s something far more serious?

While an incurable disease is nothing to be ashamed of, it can be very personal, and often people would rather keep such diagnoses to themselves until they’re comfortable sharing.

So how happy would you be having your Facebook feed littered with ads for antidepressants or local occupational therapists? More alarmingly, how would it sit knowing the company that owns your health data could sell it in a de-identified form to anyone they choose?

It could be that the tech of the future will be able to tell us when we’re sick, but the real issue we’re facing is who else it’s going to tell. Tech companies will need to take a hard look at privacy policies and how they can stay within the limits of privacy law.

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