The advent and growing adoption of connected devices is rapidly changing the mindset and expectations of consumers. The promise of the Internet of Everything fundamentally lies in connecting people, objects, data, and processes in new (and often previously unimaginable) ways. Add to this the emergence of context-aware computing and advances in data analytics, and we are poised for massive change in our everyday lives.
Growth of the “Quantified Self”
Nowhere is the potential for change greater than in the way we interact with and manage our health, particularly for people suffering from chronic diseases. We are seeing early evidence of this transformation in the growth of the “quantified self” movement and the adoption of wearable devices. Originally limited to the fitness-obsessed geek crowd, wearable devices are now going mainstream as they evolve to measure and collect a wide array of data from basic physical activity to heart rate to more complex biological functions such as blood glucose levels.
The arms race has begun as the giants of technology and consumer electronics (Google, Apple, and Samsung, to name a few) have entered the battlefield.
Wearable Devices and Chronic Disease
We need look no further than diabetes to envision how connected devices can profoundly improve the management and treatment of chronic disease. In many ways, diabetes is the perfect candidate to take advantage of how wearable devices with smart sensors can collect and distribute data to patients and clinicians. Diabetics are constantly collecting data to manage the relationship between blood glucose levels and factors such as carbohydrate intake, insulin dosing and exercise. Any system that makes data easier to collect, analyze and share will result in better-informed patients and doctors and vastly improved health outcomes.
Today many vendors produce pumps, meters, and monitors, but these products are built on proprietary data architectures and so each manufacturer produces a set of devices and software that is closed and interoperable only with its product lines. Patients would like to mix and match the best of these devices to create their own solutions, but cannot. Proprietary systems are important to support the commercial motivation to invest and commercialize new technologies, but overprotection is holding the industry back.
Empowering Personal Ownership of Medical Data
While manufacturers excel at building hardware and navigating the regulatory process, they fare badly at designing software with a great user experience. With the emergence of our app-driven culture and beautifully designed mobile devices, developers now understand how critical it is to design elegant applications that anyone can use.
Meanwhile, the quantified-self movement is turning consumers into activists. Increasingly, users demand ownership over their data and access to and portability of it with other devices and applications. Forward-thinking device manufacturers will recognize this trend and redefine what is proprietary. For example, a device manufacturer may choose to create an application programming interface (API) that allows for universal access to data such as glucose readings or insulin dosages, but keep the underlying measurement algorithms proprietary.
Understanding the Era of Connected Devices
The widespread emergence of connected devices has led to a new architecture where apps communicate with application infrastructure through network-based APIs, thereby allowing all devices – desktop, tablet, and mobile phone – to connect to a common back end, enabling users to access the app from anywhere, at any time, on any device.
But before we all let our expectations run wild, a reality check is in order. The history of technology has taught us that change occurs in fits and starts punctuated by periods of euphoria, frustration, and disillusionment. Most innovation is evolutionary, not revolutionary, and is built on the back of countless failed attempts before some event or product catalyzes the market. The treatment of diabetes is no exception. Talk to any person with diabetes and he will tell you how he has been whipsawed by the promise and failure of new technologies. The challenge lies in aligning the interests of the key players in the ecosystem, rather than in simply integrating technology. Successful innovations must navigate the needs and agendas of hardware vendors, regulatory bodies (such as the FDA), health care providers, and payers (insurance companies).
There is reason for hope as the big trends of connected and wearable devices, context-aware computing, big data analytics, and activist consumers are converging and driving innovation. While some advances may remain on the drawing board for years to come (such as the non-invasive glucose monitor we’ve been chasing for over thirty years), there are practical and evolutionary steps that can be taken today to improve the lives of patients with chronic diseases.