Digital healthcare has been part of the ‘future landscape’ for a while now; it’s something we on The Engineer take an active interest in and is a major area of expertise for the UK. But this week it took a step further towards everyday reality with the launch of Bluetooth-enabled blood-pressure monitors and scales using drop-in wireless units.
It’s a good opportunity to take a look at the implications of digital healthcare. The idea is that patients use monitoring devices in their own homes, rather than having to visit the doctor’s surgery. These devices — which could measure anything from blood pressure to glucose levels or any other measurable parameter — would then automatically send their data to a telecommunications hub within the home and from there to the patient’s doctor, giving early warning of any worrying developments. This would mean that worsening conditions would be caught in their early stages and could be dealt with without hospitalisation, and before they cause any long-term damage to the patient’s health: good for the patient and, because it avoids costly and lengthy treatment, good for the health budget as well.
That’s the upside. Of course, there’s a downside. ‘Regular monitoring’ is often a synonym for snooping and if we look further forward, such systems could monitor many more things than personal health. Want to be sure that your elderly relative is okay? You could monitor their home to tell you when they got out of bed (a loadcell under the mattress could deal with that); how often the fridge door opens; and whether the TV stays on late into the night. Is that keeping a reassuring eye, or is it an unwarranted invasion of privacy? That’s a matter of opinion, isn’t it?
It’s sometimes said that people are willing to give up a degree of privacy in return for convenience. These days, people have conversations on their mobile phones in public, saying things that they’d never dreamed of letting on to strangers before they had the ability to talk while walking around. Clearly there’s some truth in this, but to what extent it applies to sensor systems within the home is another matter. Technology is developing fast and perhaps its applications need to be discussed before it becomes readily available.
Stuart Nathan, Special Reports Editor