How many steps have you walked today? If you haven't been asked that question this year, then you will at least have heard others discuss it. Tracking how many steps we walk each day is just one of the strategies people are using nowadays to get fitter and healthier. Our ability to track such activities is possible thanks to recent advances in technology.
In particular, these advances have spawned lots of wearable technology, geared towards improving health and wellbeing. Wearable tech is being used to monitor a variety of health-related information, ranging from sleep quality to calories burnt. Fitness trackers worn on the wrists are becoming as commonplace as watches. While devices like the Apple Watch, have evolved into more than simply being timekeepers. The watch can be used to monitor health information like your heart rate too. Devices that initially began as lifestyle accessories, designed to offer convenience, are now evolving into health applications with the potential to change the way we look after our wellbeing.
And we've only just seen the start of it. Technology giants like Google, Apple and Microsoft are all branching into health. Google (or Alphabet to give it its official name) has invested in health technology by launching the life sciences company Verily, which brings together experts from a variety of fields. They have clinicians, software engineers, user experience designers and more are all collaborating to tackle the big health issues of today. At the moment, they're focusing on one of the world's biggest killers - diabetes.
Such initiatives have the potential to transform healthcare for a number of reasons. For instance, they allow us to gather an unprecedented amount of data which could offer valuable insights into our health and highlight the nuances that make us all respond differently to treatments. In an interview with the magazine STAT, Verily chief medical officer Dr Jessica Mega said their goal is "to prevent disease by understanding human variability well enough to create individualised treatments that might be based on biological, genetic, behavioural, and environmental data."
Such devices also allow us to collect information in real time and in real world scenarios, rather than merely in clinical settings. Take blood pressure for instance. High blood pressure increases your risk of having a heart attack and yet it can go undetected because it can be notoriously difficult to measure effectively, as it fluctuates during the day, depending on your activities. Measuring it 24/7 is particularly valuable but current devices can be uncomfortable and clunky. Using a device worn on the wrist is much more convenient and is likely to result in greater compliance from wearers.
Wearable health technology is being explored for a whole range of illness such as depression, asthma and multiple sclerosis. In an increasingly ageing population such devices can be invaluable for monitoring patients remotely. For instance, they're already being used to monitor whether an old person has fallen when they're at home alone and automatically call for help.
Rapid advances in a number of areas ranging from sensor technology and cloud computing to algorithms, machine learning and mobile technology have all come together to make this possible. Of course there are still hurdles to be overcome. The accuracy of certain devices needs to be improved. Issues around privacy and security need to be addressed. Clinical trials also need to be carried out if the devices are used for medical applications. Some devices will also need extensive testing to establish if they can withstand the wear and tear of constant use. This is likely to take years and cost lots of money but certainly the age of the virtual doctor may one day be upon us.