Author Mark Richards

Technology – both online and wearable tech – is playing an increasingly important role in health, as more and more of us monitor our own fitness. Is it all good news? Or are there also some sinister pitfalls?

I would wager that at one time or another must of us have typed the word ‘depression’ into Google. Maybe for ourselves, maybe we were worried about a relative, or maybe we were simply curious after reading that someone else in the public eye has ‘finally found the courage to speak out’ on the subject.

Depression is a serious condition: Mind – the mental health charity – say 1 in 4 people will suffer from some form of mental health problem each year. An article in the Guardian went further, suggesting that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 adults will specifically suffer anxiety or depression, with women more likely to suffer than men, and the incidence highest in the 50-54 age group. Increasingly, more and more young people are also experiencing anxiety or depression, with a recent report suggesting that one-third of teenage girls suffer from the condition.

Cynics might argue that as more people become aware of depression – and as our definition of ‘anxiety’ becomes wider – then more people are likely to suffer from it. Whatever your view, depression costs the NHS and the UK economy a great deal of money: it is hard to find a precise figure for the NHS, but it prescribed a record number of antidepressants last year: 64.7m items were prescribed in 2016, costing the NHS £266m – that is approximately 3% of its £9.2bn total bill for medication.

Help for the NHS

But the NHS may be about to get a helping hand: Google is not only going to give you information on depression, they are going to help you diagnose it. People searching for ‘depression’ will soon be able to answer a questionnaire to assess if they have the illness. Right now it is only available in the United States – Google has linked up with the US National Alliance on Mental Illness (Nami) on the project – but you would not bet against the initiative crossing to the UK.

Nami was quick to stress that the futuristically named PHQ-9 (Patient Health Questionnaire) was not intended to replace a qualified medical professional: rather to help people get the right help more quickly.

Let’s leave aside, for now, the question of whether this test will prompt more people to decide they are depressed: one of the questions is ‘do you have trouble concentrating on watching the television?’ And you know what? When Mel and Sue pop up on yet another programme, yes I do…

What about wearable technology for health?

Let us instead ask a more far reaching question. Is Google’s depression questionnaire just the tip of the iceberg? Will technology – and in particular, wearable technology – allow us monitor and treat far more conditions in the future?

Like millions of people, I wear a Fitbit. It counts my steps and checks my heart rate – and it has made a huge difference to my life. Since I got it – at Christmas 2015 – I have lost two stone through doing my 10,000 steps a day and I am fitter than I have been for 20 years. The number of people using wearable technology is steadily increasing – research predicts that by 2018 81.7m Americans (out of a population around 320m) will own such a product.

We have never been more in control of our own health – from wristband monitors like the Fitbit to heart rate trackers to weighing scales that monitor your body fat (be warned: seeing your body fat percentage is not the best way to start the day…) These devices are changing the way we think about our health and the evidence is that people like the control the devices give them. According to a recent survey by Trustmarque and YouGov, 81% of respondents said they would like to see more connected and wearable devices used in healthcare, with 50% suggesting their most important role will be to manage long-term conditions such as diabetes.

Diabetes is a prime example

health and diabetes

We have written previously about the diabetes epidemic affecting the UK, but the good news is that diabetes could be a prime example of wearable tech managing a chronic condition. It will entirely possible for a combination of a wearable device and an implant to constantly monitor blood sugar levels and independently inject insulin as required – without the need for any human interaction or prompting.

Wearable tech could be good news for the NHS as well as the patient: Collette Johnson, director of medical at electronics consultancy Plextek, believes that self-monitoring devices could save the NHS as much as 60% of their average cost per patient. “A wearable device can alert patients to changes much sooner,” she said.

“So they can seek medical attention more quickly, saving the need for later, more costly procedures.”

Is it all good news?

So everything is wonderful: wearable tech is going to improve our lives and our health and save the NHS millions. Maybe…

Sadly, there are two caveats.

The first one is the obvious one: that the people who will embrace wearable tech and the health benefits it brings are those who already care about their health. The people who are already using fitness trackers and mapping their walks will simply have more and better information about their already good health. Meanwhile, plenty of other people will also welcome the advances in tech: but they will use them to order a better pizza delivery.

The second drawback is rather more sinister. We have written previously about identity theft, and how this will become even more of a danger as the internet of things (the network of electronic devices with sensors and connectivity) develops. Yes, someone could gain access to your bank account through your fridge. Could they also gain access to your private medical information through a fitness or health device? Potentially, yes. And with internet blackmail and theft sadly becoming a recognised career choice in some parts of the world, there is huge potential to target both individuals who want to keep confidential details confidential, and companies who do not want their data corrupting.

But if we really want to stop ourselves sleeping at night, consider the treatment of diabetes I have outlined above. Could the wearable tech be hacked, giving the hacker control over the amount of insulin your implant could deliver? It sounds more like a plot for a murder mystery, but in theory, the answer is ‘yes, it could.’

It’s enough to make you depressed – and remember that it is not just people that get depressed: sometimes the tech needs a little help as well…