By Brooke Faulkner, freelance writer, @faulknercreek.
The proliferation of wearable mobile-connected devices has done a lot of good for people trying to lead healthier lives. People are able to gather data about their sleep to help them get better rest, track insomnia, stress, and exercise, and keep up to date on their own daily routines and health.
Many of the devices exist not just as trackers but as ways for people to motivate themselves to exercise more, go to bed at more regular times, and other little things that slip by in the daily grind.
Healthcare Data in the Modern Age
Sleep is absolutely related to health. Many health issues affect our sleep or are caused by issues with sleeping. A number of medical professionals are interested in how, when, and for how long we sleep. These days, that information is stored in digital medical records, which have a number of advantages. Specialists can access information far more quickly and easily to help us with medical problems.
There are, however, disadvantages to medical records being easily accessible and easily updatable. Privacy and security have become major concerns for healthcare providers, as the records contain our most sensitive information, which proves highly valuable to hackers.
Official medical records, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. We use the internet not only as a go-to for advice about medical conditions, but as a method to voluntarily record all sorts of data about us. Recording, storing, and tracking sleep data on our personal devices gives us a lot of power to “do it yourself” when it comes to preventative health and tracking changes in our sleep patterns. This ease of use, however, comes with a cost. It’s not all about sinister hackers, either; that data can be used in all sorts of ways that are, while not outright damaging, at least partially invasive.
Wearables, Bluetooth and Data
Tech companies are working on more advanced ways to use high-tech devices to track our sleep. These include wearables and even devices that don’t need to be attached to the body. The amount of information gathered, and its accuracy, varies greatly by device. The Bluetooth connectivity and the ability to store, track, and share the data the devices collect are parts of their appeal.
The number and type of people who benefit from this information is vast. Sleep disorders are a common side effect of other medical disorders, and managing sleep is an important part of living a healthy lifestyle, especially for people who are at greater risk for certain conditions.
You don’t need to have or be at risk for medical complications to make use of sleep data, however. There are plenty of careers in the U.S. which require people to work long or unconventional hours. Night shifts and long shifts, such as those worked by nurses, can cause havoc with the circadian rhythms that regulate our sleep. This can create complications for otherwise completely healthy people. Being able to self-regulate with the help of wearable devices is a great advantage.
By Brooke Faulkner
There’s no question that the forward march of medical technology has improved personal and public health, creating lasting positive change for humanity. New technology, however, sometimes comes with risks. While those risks rarely outweigh the potential advantages, fully exploring and preparing for them is an important responsibility.
New Solutions Pose New Dangers
One demonstration of this relationship occurred as we were developing medical devices meant to be used inside the human body. Using medical devices internally presents the problem of contamination from external sources, and we learned that killing bacteria isn’t enough — specifically, we discovered that the endotoxins produced by dead bacteria can also be harmful.
That particular issue, we’ve already solved. It is, however, an excellent example of how new benefits can present dangers that we hadn’t contended with before: our ability to kill bacteria presented a new problem as our technology continued to improve, and we started putting medical devices inside the body. We realized that some types of dead bacteria are still dangerous, and that our sterilization standards had to improve.
This relationship between new advancements and new risks continues today, although it takes different forms. The hot-button issue these days has more to do with data and privacy, which while not directly health related, has significant risks when breached.
Healthcare Data Innovations and Breakthroughs
Our ability to collect, process, and draw conclusions from ever larger amounts of data has been a huge boon to the medical industry.
- Asset tracking is the process of using fluid, regularly updated databases to keep track of physical assets and tools at a facility. However, it’s useful in many more ways than inventory management. Scanning and mobile device technology allows an asset to be kept track of at every point in its journey, from storage to use.
This method of tracking and categorizing physical assets, as well as patients, can be very useful in preventing serious accidents caused by miscommunication. Even life-threatening mistakes, such as wrong-site surgery, can be prevented by good data management. Timing, types, and amounts of medication can also be streamlined with this process, which could for example automatically sweep a database for potential adverse reactions or conflicts before a drug is prescribed to a patient.
- Giving doctors access to a digital database that covers a patient’s entire history is another advantage that advanced data technology can provide. These databases can be populated with information from several different sources, including family doctors, specialists, and even self-reported data. A doctor can have access to the notes of their peers in the medical community quickly and easily, vastly improving the care that a patient receives.
- From a management point of view, new data technologies allow administrators to streamline the operations of their offices and hospitals. Understanding how to best utilize staff for a balance of efficiency quality has a direct impact on the health of patients.
- Predictive analytics are another area which can be hugely beneficial to the healthcare field. Basically, it’s an automated process that does much of the work a doctor does already: look at a patient’s history, compare it with current medical knowledge, and use it to make predictions about that patient’s future needs. The difference is the scale at which it can be performed when automated and the sheer volume of up-to-date data that can be included. Doctors can’t be expected to keep up to date with every new study, but a database can be populated with that information to compare against.
On both a wide and individual scale, the applications of our improving data technology are saving lives and improving the quality of life of patients.
All this integration, however, comes with those pesky risks. Not nearly enough to warrant halting progress but enough to need heavy consideration.
Cybersecurity in Healthcare
The problem with health data is it’s often some of the most private and consequential data about human beings. That, unfortunately, makes it some of the most profitable to identity thieves, and even advertisers with few scruples. Healthcare data can be held to ransom, used for identity theft, or even insurance fraud. As DeVry University notes: “Your name, address, date of birth and Social Security number are all in one convenient location — ripe for stealing. Cybercriminals can take your private health information (PHI) and sell it for high prices. In fact, stolen medical records sell for 10 to 20 times more than stolen credit card numbers.”