25-08-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
The development of smart technologies and integrated sensors has led to numerous applications for smartphones in healthcare, but while engineers hope that such devices will improve health, researchers are starting to find evidence that they may make little difference. What advantages do smart health monitoring systems supposedly bring, what have researchers discovered, and does this mean that active health monitoring is less valuable than we thought?
The ever-shrinking size of semiconductors and reduction in energy consumption has helped to power all kinds of modern technologies ranging from large data centres able to handle millions of cloud functions to portable in-ear devices that can be used for music streaming, conversations, and device control. At the same time, the ability to move computing away from desktop computers into handheld devices has introduced engineers to numerous possibilities in the field of medical science, thanks to the mass integration of sensors.
When combined with AI, modern smartphones are set to introduce a new revolution in healthcare; active monitoring. Traditional medical science often relies on identifying the cause of symptoms which has worked well for the vast majority of non-fatal diseases and then treating the underlying cause with medication and/or surgery. However, some illnesses (such as cancer) can become fatal by the time visible symptoms show, and if such illnesses are caught in their early stages, they can often be eliminated.
Active health monitoring, however, utilises numerous sensors to gather all kinds of data from an individual, including heart rate, blood pressure, breathing patterns, behavioural patterns, and even bowel movements. This data is then all fed into an AI to try and predict diseases even before they show visible symptoms. As such, potentially fatal illnesses and long-term conditions can be averted early on, which reduces complications and extends the life expectancy.
While it is believed that smart sensors and Bluetooth technologies will help improve health, a recent study in the US revealed no significant change in health for those given a smart Bluetooth device and those given a traditional monitor.
The study involved a total of 2101 patients with uncontrolled blood pressure, and all participants were randomly given either a smart Bluetooth blood pressure monitor cuff or a traditional self-measuring device with no smart capabilities. After 6 months of running the trial, the researchers discovered that while, on average, the patients were able to reduce their blood pressure, the difference between those using smart devices and those using a standard device was very little different (-10.8 mmHG for smart devices vs -10.6 mmHG for standard devices).
What the researchers demonstrated in their trial is that patients who use either smart devices or standard devices for self-monitoring of health will see no benefits no matter what they choose. However, it must be understood that this test involved patients checking on their own vitals and making decisions around the data. As such, the Bluetooth blood pressure monitors provided no additional benefits over standard devices, with the exception that data might be more easily recorded and stored.
Thus, the only fact that the researchers proved is that wirelessly reading biodata on a smartphone doesn’t provide any benefit, and this makes complete sense. Simply having data accessible on a smartphone does not allow users to do anything extra.
In order for smartphone-powered systems to be effective, they require the data to be further processed via analytical algorithms and AI. At the same time, additional data can be gathered to try and identify patterns between different datasets which may indicate underlying health conditions not immediately apparent.
Overall, the trial run by the researchers proved that what matters in healthcare is not so much how data is recorded but what is done with that data.