14 January 2019

Prescribed Technological Therapy: Is this our future?

When we discuss technology, we often talk about things that are common in our daily lives — Facebook, how we use our smartphones, streaming services, and “disruptive companies” like Uber or even Tesla. But perhaps one of least noticed categories of technology that will have the greatest impact on our lives - literally CHANGE our lives - is one we need to start talking about now and thats technology interfacing with our health.

This is still very much a work-in-progress, but companies are already experimenting. What do you think about companies requiring the use of smart watches for those with insurance policies? What about using apps to monitor everything from blood sugar levels for diabetics to mood tracking for people fighting depression? Even the newest Apple Watch features an FDA cleared algorithm and app combo that uses Apple Watch data to detect atrial fibrillation, an abnormal heart condition!

Speaking of depression, with more and more people diagnosed with mental illness and substance abuse problems, there’s a huge opportunity for VR to play a part in treatment. This type of immersion therapy is in its infancy, but it’s showing great promise. In fact, this is just one example of a much larger movement where FDA has already started to approve ‘digital therapeutics’ like video games as treatment for ADHD.

Earlier this year, digital medicine company Akili Interactive announced that its video game for children with ADHD demonstrated a statistically significant improvement in a randomized, controlled clinical trial. That milestone paves the way for what could be the first prescription video game.Wired: The Doctor Prescribes Video Games and Virtual Reality Rehab

While software and apps can measure and diagnose, can they actually treat diseases? Recent FDA decisions says the answer is yes.

Beyond behavior management, a growing number of companies are building products in which the software itself is “therapeutically-active,” meaning that use of the product directly impacts the condition (much like taking a drug has a direct impact on the body). In May, MindMaze received FDA clearance to bring a virtual reality rehabilitation platform to market for stroke and traumatic injury patients.Wired: The Doctor Prescribes Video Games and Virtual Reality Rehab

This obviously raises a couple of serious questions, ethics being the biggest one.

“We need to ensure that the industry has strong ethical underpinning as it brings these monitoring and surveillance tools into the mainstream.”

Hm, how do you think that’s gone so far? While social networks and games can have a huge impact on our social and cultural lives, they are still not specifically targeting people with a medical condition; and being in a vulnerable state can make you an easy target. I’m concerned that it’s our industry that, up until this point, only measure thing by metrics like user retention, growth, and user engagement. Not quite how you want to judge traumatic injury patients, much less help them overcome their ailments.

There IS a silver lining to this. As AI and VR evolve and improve, apps and algorithms have the opportunity to augment doctors and complement - and maybe even one day replace - drugs.

As for all the discussions about moral responsibility in the tech scene, there’s no better arena than healthcare to prove we are capable of using the possibilities of tech for the greater good.