A generation away

Let me put forth a simple declaration: Technology can make us a healthier society. It’s going to take a generation, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t embrace it and get the ball rolling today.

We shound—and, actually, we are.

I bring this up now because of all the commotion of late around health care here in the United States. The current president and our Republican-led congress hold the cards right now, and their efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare) may finally bear fruit.

It may be bitter and hard to consume, but that’s another story.

As has been pointed out at least since the ACA became law, the U.S. has the highest per capita health care costs, yet receives a lower standard of care when compared to other developed nations.

And, while the replacement health care legislation currently being flogged by Paul Ryan and his Republican colleagues will cost less, it looks as though it will deliver an even markedly worse state of affairs for virtually anyone who is not young, rich, and/or currently healthy.

Technological solutions

Surely we can do better, but the ideologues cobbling together health care legislation on a wing and a prayer aren’t the solution.

Could technology be the solution? The answer: no, not the entire solution, but certainly a part of it. And that part involves health and fitness tracking, monitoring, data gathering, and data sharing.

We are seeing the capabilities of fitness trackers and smartwatches improve dramatically while the costs of the inherent technologies keep coming down.

What might those capabilities look like in a year? Three years? Ten? As with any technology, the answers are better, more accurate, more powerful, and even more affordable. In fact, wearables could become the de facto standard for our children, their progeny, and so on up the line.

Health and fitness tracking, of course, are only one part of the technological equation when it comes to improved health and wellness care. We’re seeing breakthroughs in many areas of medicine, including robotic surgery, immunotherapies, and DNA sequencing and editing.

Here and now

But in terms of what we can do on our own in the comfort of our homes or while exercising is pretty good now and will only get better.

Currently, with the help of my Apple Watch, I can track my exercise minutes, calories burned, and whether I’m being too sedentary.

In addition, this data is logged in my iPhone’s Activity and Health applications, so that I can go back and review these statistics over time to get a picture of my weekly, monthly, and yearly activity and heart rate statistics.

Apple is currently on its third generation of the Watch. The device has gotten very good as a fitness and activity tracker, but it’s limited in what it can offer to users in terms of more comprehensive health tracking.

The wearables industry represented by Apple, Samsung, FitBit and others is young but vibrant. The market players are investing significantly in research and development, and, increasingly, are collaborating with the medical community.

Power to the people

The technological progress bodes well, because people—healthy or otherwise—will be able to track increasingly more of their personal health profile.

That includes sleep patterns, activity levels, daily exercise amounts, blood pressure, sugar, and oxygen levels, resting and active heart rates, and other statistics.

In addition, we’ll be able to view aggregated or granular data over time. This will enable us to adjust our life styles with the benefit of hard data to achieve greater health.

Combine that with the ability to share our health data with our medical professionals, and the potential for a quantum leap in personalized health care unfolds.

Collaborative developments

Our devices will continue to get better at measuring and collecting the data our bodies can provide, and I expect this improvement will happen quickly. But it will require cooperation from governments, as well as users, corporations, and the medical community.

Before the first Apple Watch was announced, Apple was rumored to have been working on more advanced sensors that would enable the device to do more than it actually did on release.

Capabilities like measuring blood pressure and blood sugar. This stuff is hard to get right, for one thing.

For another, certain classes of health measurement devices have to be approved by governmental regulatory bodies, such as the FDA in the U.S.

Nonetheless, it’s logical to conclude that Apple and others are going to keep at it. Like it has in other markets, Apple is trying to lead the way in fitness, health, and research technologies for the medical industry.

Accelerating breakthroughs

In 2014, Apple announced HealthKit, a software platform and API that enables developers to create applications for iOS devices (iPhone, iPad, Watch, etc.).

Using the built-in hardware, firmware, and software from these devices, developers can add their own applications for statistical analysis, user-entered information, and health-provider interactions.

In addition, the information gleaned from these third-party applications could be aggregated into Apple’s Health application, giving users—and, where appropriate, health care professionals—a cohesive look at all their data.

In 2015, Apple announced ResearchKit to further its foray into the medical industry. Apple described ResearchKit as “an open source software framework designed for medical and health research, helping doctors and scientists gather data more frequently and more accurately from participants using iPhone apps.”

Medical organizations are using ResearchKit to gain insights into autism, Parkinson’s disease, epilepsy, asthma, and other chronic diseases.

With access to a iPhone’s built-in sensors (accelerometer, microphone, gyroscope and GPS), researchers are able to monitor a patient’s gait, motor impairment, fitness, speech, and memory.

Multiply that information by potentially millions of patients and their data, the likely results are breakthroughs in understanding diseases and developing new treatments.

So, despite our government’s tepid response to health insurance in the U.S., it’s nice to know that the technology industry and medical community are working together on real solutions.

We’re seeing remarkable progress already. In a generation, the results should be profound.

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