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The Future of Healthcare and Technology

Part 2: Using IoT to Expand Medicine’s Reach

This five-part series examines the future of medical care through 2030 and focuses on digital health using tools such as AI and IoT. What constitutes medical care what is required and the way medical care is provided—changes significantly with the changing times. In Part 2, we explore the use of IoT to promote “self-care,” or medical care by patients themselves.

Author: Hiroaki Kato, M.D.

Dr. Kato develops surgical instruments and telemedicine services while maintaining a medical practice. In 2016, he joined the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare (MHLW), where he was involved in legislation and policy making as Assistant to the director in the Health Policy Bureau. Since leaving the MHLW, he has been practicing medicine and supporting the development of new businesses throughout the medical field, including co-founding an AI medical device development company. Dr. Kato is the author of several books, including Medical Care 4.0 (Nikkei BP).

Self-care: Shifting the Focus to Health Awareness

Conventional medical care used to be something provided only when a sick person visited a medical institution. However, now more and more healthy people are provided with information on prevention and given health checkups, and disease management and rehabilitation are conducted following diagnosis. Moreover, home care and online medical exams that do not require visits to a medical institution for the diagnosis of disease are also advancing recently. In other words, medicine, including the areas of health maintenance and convalescence, will have more points of contact with our daily lives. I call this “the diversification of points of contact with medicine.”

On that, self-care, in which individuals are aware of their health condition, will likely accelerate in the future. Until now, people have relied on treatment plans as directed by doctors. It is now thought that patients and others will become more proactive in managing their own health. It will therefore be necessary to look at the fact that the base of medicine will expand, with even the collection of personal biological data falling into the category of medical care.

IoT Devices: Informing People of Health Abnormalities and Encouraging Thorough Examinations

IoT is already being utilized to expand the base of medicine. IoT devices that collect various biological data just by wearing them (wearable devices) are becoming more ubiquitous in self-care.

In September 2020, electrocardiogram and irregular rhythm notification wearable watch apps, were approved as medical devices. These apps inform users of heart and heart rate irregularities and can encourage follow-up with healthcare providers. This is an example of the diversification that has increased points of contact with medicine in everyday life. Similar wristband wearable devices have been developed in Japan for early detection of strokes and prediction of epileptic seizures. Outside of Japan, devices that record biometric pregnancy data have been introduced and increased adoption is expected.

In this way, in the context of medical care provision with wearable devices, it is necessary to collect day-to-day biological data and detect temporary disturbances in that data. This is because if the days when users wear a device and do not wear it are erratic, they may not get the expected results. The challenge, therefore, is how to maintain the motivation to continue using wearable devices.

The keys overcoming this are financial incentives and gamification. For example, a Japanese life insurer has introduced a financial incentive to refunds a portion of premiums based on the number of steps and the amount of exercise recorded on wearable devices. There is a also a clinic that has developed a smartphone app that records the number of steps and awards points that can be exchanged for prizes according to the number of steps taken. To expand the base of medicine, in addition to technological development, ideas for actively leading people to better health are also needed.

This time, I introduced examples of the use of IoT to increase the contact between patients and medical care and to expand the base of medicine. However, expanding the base of medicine will necessitate changing medical settings themselves. In the next issue, we will look at what is required of the medical settings, along with examples of the use of AI.

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