We've all had an itch that won't go away, a throbbing pain from stubbing our toes, a sore mouth because we bit our tongue. They're there in the background, intensifying when we do certain everyday actions, reminding us and annoying us and hurting, till they ease up and we forget. Imagine they don't ease. Imagine a litany of itches and pains, which persist day after day and as something ebbs, something else takes its place. This is the daily world of someone living with the symptoms and side effects of a long-term illness. The word patient means 'one who suffers' and this is borne out nowhere stronger than with a chronic condition.
Take cancer. The tumour and the treatments - like chemo, radiation, surgery - can cause countless symptoms and side effects. There are the ones we hear about: nausea, hair loss, pain. Then there are the others that are less talked about but all too prevalent: itching till your skin is raw, a constant metallic taste that makes everything taste awful, a sore mouth that makes it painful to even drink water, or brain fog ("chemo brain") where your memory lapses make you feel like you're suddenly losing your mind. When you're living with these, it's hard to have a normal home, family or work life - to take your children to school or go to the supermarket. Quality of day-to-day life takes on a whole different meaning.
There are actually hundreds of non-medical products that can bring some relief from these symptoms and side effects. It may be something that distracts, or soothes, or wholly or partially alleviates it. It can be simple things - a length of rubber tubing that helps grip forks and knives meant that one of our community could eat her Christmas dinner herself rather than being fed it, for the first time in years. Or an itchy skin oil that made a grandpa with terminal cancer stop scratching his scalp till it was raw. These products put the power in the hands of patients to make small improvements to their daily life, which can make the world of difference.
This is where tech comes in.
First, tech has a prime role in discovery and aggregation of the most helpful things that already exist. The search costs for a patient, with the world on their mind, should be zero. The work is in identifying, cataloguing and continually updating. Put simply, this means platforms and intelligent engines that curate and suggest. At Live Better With, our mission is just this, and for cancer, we're at 800 products and counting.
Second, tech is the foundation of new and innovative non-medical products that will bring relief in unimagined and reimagined ways. We're so familiar with the wellness tech for the well - trackers and monitors for every measurable body signal. It's time for the similar tidal wave for the chronically ill. It's looking very hopeful. There are four things I'm most excited about making a big difference to everyday life:
- Portable and/or wearable pain relief through intensive nerve stimulation, which means it's totally drug-free. The leading devices on this front, like Quell, now use technology that is up to 5x more powerful relief than ever before, and can be personalised to individual pain and comfort levels.
- Next generation mobility products that address specific motion impairments. Gyenno and Liftware, for example, make forks and knives that help counter and stabilise hand and arm tremors, meaning that the most basic of activities like eating and drinking, are possible once again.
- Medication nonadherence devices that take behaviour change to the very practical level. The smartest pillboxes now remind you and track you, but also alert you to double-dosing or if you've left home without your medication.
- Health fashiontech, which is now putting both style and function equally at the forefront for clothing and coverings. There are now dedicated R&D programmes like MIT's Open Style lab, as well as scaling companies leading the way in commercialising new ideas - like our partners Care & Wear, who make stylish, antimicrobial, washable and breathable replacements for PICC line covers, and Inga Wellbeing, who are making nurse-approved poppered designs so patients don't have to fully undress through treatment
Making day-to-day life better for people with cancer and all long-term illnesses is going to take a step change in this non-medical side of care. Medical and research institutions working in the space of long-term illnesses have their hands rightly full - and their budgets no doubt full too - with treatment, research and cure. So, there's a massive and exciting role for healthtech to play its part in this non-medical side of chronic disease care. And it's waiting to be seized by those of us who perhaps aren't doctors, nurses or scientists, but care deeply about the long-term unwell.
Tamara Rajah is the Founder and CEO of Live Better With.