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Can't Get No Sleep: A Post-CES Report On Digital Health

27/01/2017 14:17 GMT | Updated 27/01/2017 14:17 GMT

Digital Health is growing up. As an industry that touches almost every vertical you can think of, from clinical to insurance to automotive to plain consumer, we're no longer looking at just trying to keep people well or react to their become unwell: at CES this year so far, it was clear that digital health is now encompassing a much more granular, and at the same time broader, scope of interventions and solutions, from sleep to nutrition to mental health, which are directed at human wellbeing in profound ways.

As Jonah Comstock pointed out in his thorough round-up , CES 17 has had lots of non-device launches so far, further confirming that the presence of digital health companies at CES is growing stronger by the year; but it's clear, from looking through the Startup Alley at Eureka Park, which I've decided to rename Hell's Kitchen (you have to fight your way through the alleys to get home), that digital health is now more than just a 'disruption' fad or new entrant in the scene. All these new companies have something in common: they tackle health from the profound perspective I describe above (although some attempt to do this with a complete lack of evidence for their approach).

Walking the floor at CES, one could see that the macho perception that we should all get 2h sleep a night and overwork ourselves to exhaustion is being deconstructed. There are more companies and startups touting digital interventions for sleep than almost any other problem (except, of course, for fitness and general health, where Fitbit and Mio and Suunto and seemingly a hundred others are tackling the old wearable+data space and trying to make it stick).

This points at something I think is hugely relevant in today's society, and which the political and social landscape desperately need: we are no longer content to presume working 24/7 and dying whilst trying to achieve the dream and provide for our families will pan out for the best. In fact, we've clearly come to recognise the opposite - it doesn't, as our closest either leave us or grow up or challenge us to be less connected, and more connective. Being connective means being there for someone on their terms. To do this, we have to disconnect from the mainframe and abandon our appendixes (our smartphones) for long enough to make human contact matter (again).

If this is true, then, the new battlefield for innovation in digital health is not the hospital. It isn't the doctor's office or the post-diagnostic care of chronic disease. It is the workplace.

Why? Because even when we leave it, it pervades our thoughts and impedes our ability to be connective and helpful to our families. Because we send emails at 1am when we suddenly experience a panic regarding a project that must move forward tomorrow (today). Because we wish we had said something at that meeting. And then these thoughts persevere, and hound us, and become haunting loops that lock our brains up. These thoughts can be called perseverative cognition (or rumination), and they are the consequence of the always on culture we've come to accept. I have personally seen the effects of rumination and how it can lead to cardiovascular disease in a clinical trial, and together with teams from the UK and Finland, I've just published the results in the Frontiers of Human Neuroscience journal to highlight the problem.

We must understand where productivity ends and burnout begins better than we currently do. Why Karoshi is labelled and accepted as such in Japan, but subliminal and memetic in western cultures, where we pretend it isn't happening. Why flow is easily described but seemingly impossible to achieve in the constantly interruptive, continuous partial attention -inducing workplaces to which we devote inordinate amounts of our time.

My favourite radio station other than BBC4, NPR, and its wonderful Writers' Almanac, always signs off with Garrison Keillor's dictum: "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch." This shouldn't be wishful thinking. It should be prism through which new scientific enquiry is conducted on human wellbeing from now on. We deserve to be able to do good work and to be well at the same time.