As anyone who remembers the dark days of landlines and dial-up Internet connections will tell you, technology has been evolving at a mind-blowing pace. And while we talk a lot about what new tech innovations mean for your workouts or your diet or even your social life, something that gets less attention is how the changes impact healthcare.
True, healthcare doesn't sound as sexy as the latest fitness tracking technology. But some of the latest advancements are just as relevant to you. Take, for example, social media. As early as 2011, researchers discovered that they could analyze tweets to determine how and where the flu was spreading. Other researchers fine-tuned the process, figuring out that they could predict where the flu would go next based on a whole variety of tweets—not just ones describing flu symptoms, but also mentioning certain emotions or asking for help. And now Clorox's new Cold and Flu Pulse site harnesses that power: It uses Twitter data to assess risk, then tells you how careful you should be when you go outside. Scientists use Twitter and Facebook to track the spread of other diseases too—one study found that Twitter Can Predict Rates of Heart Disease.
The way doctors and patients are using higher tech forms of communication—texting, emailing, video-chatting—is also changing the health world. You may already text, email, or even Facebook chat with your own doctor—a recent study found that more than 37 percent of people do. And there's an app for that as well: PingMD (free; pingmd.com), for example, lets you text, call, or videochat with your own doctor on a safe network.
But in this arena, tech doesn't always change things for the better, some experts think. "One big trend we've seen is patients using electronic communication to get diagnosed or ask for medications via text, phone call, or video-chat," says Ralph Rogers, M.D., Ph.D., a sports physician and an expert in telemedicine and digital health. While on its face that seems amazing—you can get a 'script for a UTI or sinus infection without having to find the wherewithal to schedule and go to an in office appointment—not all experts are sold. "I don't think this is a great idea. It's important to conduct exams in person, or you may miss all the non-conscious cues and subtleties that are only possible to detect in face-to-face interactions," adds Rogers. (Should You Self-Diagnose Your UTI?)
Still, apps like Doctor On Demand (free to download, from $40 per e-visit; doctorondemand.com), which hook you up (electronically) with any number of specialists within minutes of you logging on, have their place. For one, they're a game-changer for people who live in more rural areas, without easy access to doctors' offices.
And everyone can benefit from their follow-up services. Say, for example, you see your doctor and are diagnosed with a medicine that you're not so sure about. An app like Doctor On Demand is a great way to get a second opinion without having to schedule a second visit. They can also help with follow-ups, since apps and sites have the ability to not just create treatment plans for you, but to send you reminders and notifications. "After a doctor gives you a treatment plan, we nudge you with emails, phone alerts, app notifications to make sure you're following it. That doesn't happen with traditional doctors," says Pat Basu, M.D., the chief medical officer of telemedicine app Doctor on Demand. The "nudges" also give you a chance to air any issues you've been having since your visit, like a bad reaction to a medicine or worsening symptoms.
Tech is also changing the way doctors talk to other doctors. "This is something that's been happening anyway—I'll call a colleague in another country or state because I'm not sure about a certain diagnosis," says Dr. Rogers. "But new forms of tech like Skype has made it much easier to reach a larger community of specialists, which is only a good thing for patients." Figure 1 (free; figure1.com), for example, acts like a kind of Instagram for doctors. M.D.s upload photos of different medical conditions in order to share interesting findings, to get feedback or just help other doctors recognize the issue if they see it.
Besides making communication easier, technology is also improving health-related products. Companies like Kinsa are completely changing the way we interact with things as simple as a thermometer. Their Smart Stick Thermometer ($20; kinsahealth.com) plugs into your cell phone. It can tell if you're holding it in the optimal place in your mouth, and while it detects your temperature, it displays a bubble popping game to keep kids (or you—let's be real) occupied. It also lets you record your temperature and symptoms and track when you took meds, which is helpful if you decide to talk to a doctor later on, and gives you treatment suggestions. Other companies like BeWell Connect make smart blood pressure monitors, scales, and more. Dr. Rogers says that there are researchers developing a technology like Google Glass that surgeons could wear in the OR that would display the patients' info and vital stats right in their line of vision.
"There are a lot of innovations that are happening in the U.S. right now that are unbelievable and exciting," asserts Dr. Rogers. And even though he doesn't think there's any substitute for the old-fashioned, face-to-face doctor's visit, chances are everything else surrounding health is going to continue to change—for the better—in the upcoming years. After all, we already caught up with the Jetsons. Who knows what's next?