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Health tech and the digital revolution

Health tech and the digital revolution

20 November 2014 Written by By Deyan Sudjic Director, Design Museum

The Design Museum has launched Health Tech and You - a search for the best new health tech ideas, inventions and devices.  Director Deyan Sudjic reflects on how the digital revolution is breaking down doors in the health industry - and showcases three recent life-changing innovations. 

How much of your life do you spend using your mobile phone? And is it good for your health?

If you’re anywhere near the average, the latest research claims that in the two years between 2011 and 2013 you’ll have doubled the time spent using your smartphone to around 3 hours 15 minutes a day. That’s edging a quarter of our waking lives on our phones. In fact, we’re using them less and less for communicating - instead gazing ever longer at the pocket-sized screen in search of something else.  

We have adapted to consult our phones as we would an oracle. We look for constant updates about our work, the news, the weather, check our bank balance, book tickets, plan journeys, live our social lives and peer into the lives of those we know (and those we don’t) on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The smartphone has taken the place of the camera, the stereo system, the map, the typewriter the wristwatch, the TV, the radio, the book. It has done away with photographic film, film shops, processing, with bookshops, with recording studios. It has massively transformed our behaviour:  the selfie is our new way of seeing the world around us.

We have become addicted to the reward of getting a response on the screen, and anxiously fiddle with the phone in the way we once might have with a cigarette. Our hands look busy - and so must our minds be, with something important, or at least all-consuming. 

And now there’s a new, openly existential, reason to consult personal technology - with a glance at the kit we carry in our pockets or on our wrists, we can monitor the status of our health. We can ask of our technology: how am I?

I was surprised recently to see a little heart icon pop up on my phone, which had without asking or telling me been counting every step I had taken for the previous four weeks.  As long as we accept that uploading yet another aspect of our lives onto a digital server is indeed a good thing for our wellbeing, this burgeoning industry that helps people manage their healthcare with neatly designed technology has everything to play for.

The digital revolution

Our increasing fascination with our mobile devices is part of the biggest revolution that the world has seen since the first main frame computers of the 1950s. The digital revolution has transformed everything in its path, sweeping aside the analogue in a wave of mass extinctions, and transforming the way that we communicate with each other, fight wars, how we work, how we play.  The pace of change has got faster and faster. There were once five-decade gaps between the phone, fax machine, and tablet. Today, it’s a matter of weeks from launch of a piece of new tech to mass adoption –often followed by astonishingly intensive use.

Digital technology has been on a long march through the institutions, and industries have leapt on the runaway train one by one.

Healthcare is perhaps among the most private and sensitive of worlds to join the digital jamboree. A sense of threat in the proliferation of personal health apps, devices and wearable technologies that gather our personal data can only be offset by a belief that we really can use this data to manage serious long term conditions and track signs and symptoms of disease.

The growth of patient-led healthcare

If we do believe it, we’re about to witness a transformation of the global healthcare industry, led by an independent, consumer-led (and unregulated) health tech market. This radical change is breaking on to a community of medical practitioners whose purpose is about to be dramatically enhanced, or challenged, by the growth of patient-led healthcare. I asked a doctor why he had switched from cardiology to dermatology. Cardiology, he told me, was now overwhelmed by data and technology. Dermatology still offered the chance to carry out a complete procedure based on his own skills. When a GP’s face appears by Skype on our mobile phone, can he or she still sit on the Mount Olympian pedestal of yesterday’s world?

Some recent examples of pioneering health tech:

ABC Syringe: a behaviour-changing syringe

Designed by Dr David Swann

Health tech can be low tech. Tens of thousands die from infections arising from reusing needles, This is a simple system that has a chemical coating that changes colour when it has been used once, so that people immediately know that it is not safe. This visual transformation alerts and empowers both literate and illiterate patients to make better risk decisions, and provokes doctors into clinical compliance.

PEEK (Portable Eye Examination Kit)

Designed by Dr Andrew Bastawrous, Stewart Jordan, Dr Mario Giardini, Dr Iain Livingstone

And it can be high tech. A product that is known as the ophthalmic ward that comes in a pocket, it has the potential to revolutionise the prevention of blindness in low-income countries. Peek is a smartphone-based system comprehensive eye examinations developed in London, and intended for use in Sub Saharan Africa. A bit of clip on hard ware allows field workers to carry on a scan in the most remote locations, transmit the scan back to London for a diagnosis, and then send the results back.

Apple Watch

Designed by Apple Inc.

Apple has announced its designs on the health market with the launch of Apple Watch. It’s a powerful demonstration of the understanding of how a design team needs to consider the form, the function, and the meaning of what they do. A watch is, on one level a kind of jewellery. But it also needs a purpose, the alibi of function. It will be about monitoring vital signs - it will be the alibi of the worried well.

Health Tech and You Awards

The digital revolution is breaking down the doors of the health industry, but are we ready for it? The Design Museum has launched a global search for the most interesting and promising health tech ideas, inventions and devices. A shortlist will be exhibited at the museum, with an Awards programme alongside to celebrate the best of the ideas. Anyone can enter now before the closing date of 28 November 2014:

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