Health tech has the capability to change the world and it already is. From pacemakers to VR, the health revolution is paving the way for new technology to be developed worldwide. This article looks at uncovering some of the latest developments, as well as some of the problems the newest technologies have the potential to bring.
Internal pacemakers have been around since the late 1950s with Swedish engineer Dr. Rune Elmquist and surgeon Dr. Ake Senning implanting the first one, which failed within the space of 8 hours. The patient Mr Larsson went on to have a further 25 operations to replace the pacemaker and implant newer models, with his death coming over 40 years later due to skin cancer. This is the first example of where health tech really blew the bounds of human innovation. Now, thousands of pacemakers are implanted in the UK every year making it one of the most common heart surgeries conducted. The pacemaker itself is very simple, a small device which mimics the hearts own ‘pacemaker’ by sending an electrical impulse to trigger the heartbeat. This is done ‘smartly’ only sending this impulse when the pacemaker detects the heart has missed a beat, or where it detects something is going wrong. By being able to correct arrhythmia (abnormal heart rate) the pacemaker is a device that has saved millions of lives worldwide, preventing heart attacks, regular fainting and other life-threatening complications.
Another more recent innovation is the insulin pump used to treat diabetes. This device is connected via a cannula to the body where the wearer can modify the amount of insulin administered at any time. This is an innovation which is changing the lives of many with type 1 diabetes allowing wearers to not have to carry insulin pens with them, thereby allowing them more freedom in their lives. This treatment is common in children with 19% using an insulin pump, showing that the innovation – made legal in the UK is 2003 – is helping thousands of children across the country.
In recent years, the focus on sleep health has come into the public domain. Sleep is one of the most important aspects of human life, providing our bodies and minds with the essential time to rest, recover, and learn. Getting between 8-10 hours of sleep is linked to lower risk of type II diabetes, lower risk of Alzheimer’s and Dementia, higher fertility and even more. More frequently people are not achieving their 8 hours minimum sleep, creating an opportunity for health tech entrepreneurs. From executives boasting about not having slept, to normal people unable to get 8 hours sleep due to childcare needs, sleep is considered a luxury in today’s world. Many doctors and scientists worldwide are encouraging longer sleeping time, however, many of us struggle even if we do manage to get to bed with the desire to sleep for 8 hours.
Babies are renowned for being able to sleep, however, they are also renowned for waking up a lot. As most parents know rocking can really help soothe a baby to help it get to sleep, which is where Lullabub comes in. Lullabub is an automatic cot rocker designed to mimic 4 different sensations to help babies get back to and stay asleep. This works by connecting each the leg of the cot to a device which then has the capability to raise or lower the leg, allowing a rocking motion to be felt. This innovation is something that could transform parenting during the early months allowing babies to have a less interrupted full night sleep, enhancing their development during the early years.
Rocking doesn’t only help with children. Studies by Swiss researchers show that rocking adults in time with their brains natural electrical rhythm encourages them to have a deeper better night’s sleep. This technology is still in the development stage but if perfected could hold a new revolution in the way we sleep. Furthermore, temperature is another important factor for a good night sleep. In a paper by Raymann, Swaab and Van Someren, researchers looked at controlling the skin temperature of both healthy and insomniac participants, finding that changing the temperatures by as little as 0.4°C caused a statistically significant change in suppressing waking up at night as well as enhancing sleep to the deeper stages. This study could change the way we sleep. If engineers are able to develop a system for controlling skin temperature at home (e.g. wearing smart socks) people would be able to have increasingly sounder more beneficial sleep, transforming productivity, health and wellbeing worldwide.
Another interesting research area is transcranial direct-current stimulation. This is where electrodes are attached to a patient’s skull and in this case, very small electrical impulses omitted (small enough so the patient wouldn’t be able to feel it). These electrical impulses were controlled to be in time with the brain’s natural electrical rhythm during the NREM stage of sleep. This enhanced memory retention by up to 40% compared with a control group, showing that we have a long way to go to fully utilise the benefits of a good night’s sleep.
It is known that for years women’s health was overlooked as a side thought, with it taking until the early 1990s for the FDA to allow women of childbearing age to be involved in clinical trials. This has led to the gender health gap which is still affecting women. Even today some drug doses are still based on research conducted on male participants, which in certain cases could result in potentially dangerous doses being administered to women. Even in early stages of drug studies, rodents used are majority male with the belief that female animals are more variable than male (proven false by A K Veery in a study on female rodent variability).
This historical trend is something that health tech is trying to change. Lower back pain is the most common type of chronic pain; however, it affects more women than men. This is being countered by an app called Kaia. Developed in Germany, the app gives people bespoke exercises along with daily training to help mitigate and solve the pain. This is remarkably cheaper than your average physio session and could increase the health of millions worldwide. The menopause is another issue which has not had the research needed in past years, with many of the symptoms completely unknown to many women. Hot flushes, however, are one of the most common and the company Embr Labs are trying to solve it. They have developed a bracelet which is able to cool or heat the body to help control the patient’s temperature enabling women to manage some of the more severe flushes helping them go about their daily lives.
Heart disease and heart attacks are conditions which are generally associated with elderly males. In the UK roughly 7.4 million people have a heart condition, with nearly 3.5 million of them being women. According to the British Heart Foundation (BHF) a woman is 50% more likely than a man to receive the wrong initial diagnosis for a heart attack, as well as being less likely to receive lifesaving treatments in an appropriate timescale. This is all down to the lack of research and understanding of how men and women have different symptoms of heart conditions. One example being the coronary angiogram, the gold standard test for detecting heart disease. The test detects specific patterns of narrower major arteries in and around your heart, while this is very common in men, in women sometimes they will have normal larger arteries yet have abnormal smaller blood vessels that this test will not pick up. There is a company attempting to counter this, Bloomer Tech. Bloomer Tech are a company which are using ‘ordinary clothing to collect extraordinary data’. They have developed a bra which has sensors embedded within it to collect large volumes of data such as electrocardiograms, continuous heart rate monitoring, respiratory rate and heart rhythms. The circuit is embedded into the bra, so that it feels exactly the same and the bra connects to the user’s phone via Bluetooth to collect the data. This company is one born out of the gender health gap and has the potential to change women’s lives worldwide.
Period health is another topic which has generally been overlooked. In recent years stories have been emerging about women who have waited years to get a diagnosis for endometriosis, with doctors playing down the pain, or regularly misdiagnosing patients. Health tech start-up Gynoveda is attempting to tackle this problem, as well as the stigma behind period health. Gynoveda has built an AI ‘robot’ to help identify period problems and prescribe potential treatments. Founders Rachana and Vishal Gupta own a clinic in Mumbai but noticed that women were hesitant to speak to male doctors about the issues. This led them to work with leading Gynaecologist Dr. Aarati Patel who helped them develop their AI systems. This is another step to help women to level up the gender health gap which is only going to get smaller in the coming years.
Hospitals are an area in society which seem to have some of the most cutting-edge technology available, however, health tech is still making an impression there. In labour, Virtual Reality headsets are being offered to women as another alternative for pain management. In the University Hospital of Wales trials are currently being carried out to see if the VR can help in the pain management of childbirth. Ms Hardacre, the head of midwifery for the Cardiff and Vale health board told the BBC that “there is a great opportunity particularly to use this with women in early labour, to try to help them with some of the breathing and relaxation.” One of the patients to be trailing the technology Ms Lelii told the BBC that being able to choose is something that is really important going into labour, with having more alternatives only a good thing.
Another interesting use of VR is in therapy. Neuro Rehab VR are a company who have built a system for patients who have been through a traumatic injury to help them increase recovery speed. When developing the system, founder Veena Somareddy said that in Virtual Reality patients often overcome their metal block quickly. This enables patients to take the next step in their therapies helping them reduce recovery time saving both time and money.
It is clear that health tech is shaking up the healthcare industry. From VR to temperature-controlled wrists, health tech has the power to resolve past wrongs. The question for businesses is what is the next health tech trend going to bring? Will it be impacting my industry? What can I do to ensure my employees can benefit from these innovations? Answering these questions could push you and your business to the next level, ensuring employee satisfaction and increasing productivity.