Culture / Healthcare / Other / Technology

Biometrics: Changing the Way Medical Information is Gathered

In one sense, Telehealth services and biometric devices are similar; both have the potential to improve access to a breadth of valuable health information. They are also different in a sense that the proliferation and use of biometric devices may have more profound long-term societal and policy implications when compared to telehealth services.

Biometric devices can improve patient outcomes. However, currently the commercialization of biometric devices is in its infancy. Products like the Fitbit and Jawbone, wearable devices capable of tracking biometric data are rudimentary and the information they provide to users is limited compared to what is possible. In the coming years this technology’s full potential will likely be realized. As the requisite technology for making biometric devices becomes more affordable, the devices will become widely available. This could improve public health by serving as a fun, intriguing and easy way for users to become more health conscious, thus reducing both personal and national health care costs.

Biometrics is the study and analysis of biological data. This information can be gained through the use of sensors and chips. Recently, increased funding and greater coverage for preventative services has been gaining support from state and federal legislators as a bipartisan measures to control rising health care costs. Biometrics may be the Holy Grail for proponents of preventative medicine. Take cancer for example. About 1,660,290 new cases were diagnosed last year, and about 580,350 Americans died as a result of cancer (that they were diagnosed in any year). Cancer remains the second most common cause of death in the US, accounting for nearly 1 in every 4 deaths. Cancers occur at the first instance of an individual’s cells multiplying and growing uncontrollably. Nationally, Americans consume preventive services at about half the recommended rate– meaning cancers are not detected and treated as early as possible (when tumors are small, localized and more likely benign). Rather, cancers are more likely to be addressed in their later stages after symptoms have become more noticeable and disruptive to the patient. Unfortunately, sometimes at this point it is too late for treatment to be effective. Since the effectiveness of cancer treatment can be determined the moment the disease is detected; the earlier cancer is discovered, the sooner treatment can begin—improving the chances of beating it.

Technology already plays a significant role in the detection of cancer; in the future technology will play an even larger role. The capabilities of biometric sensors are rapidly improving. This June, the HealBe GoBe will hit the market offering customers unprecedented biometric capabilities. The GoBe will use pulse, impedance and glucose sensors to measure biometric data including caloric intake, heart rate, stress level, sleep cycles, hydration and activity among other metrics. In the near future, the major improvement to this technology may allow algorithms to detect problematic patterns in biometric data that may lead to disease. This information can be shared with physicians in real time– ultimately leading to personalized healthcare. While biometric devices are currently marketed towards health conscious individuals, this technology is so easy to use it has the potential to one day see much wider use in the general public. Since biometric data can be instantly relayed to a Primary Care Physician, users do not necessarily have to be health experts—their doctors could remotely monitor their health and periodically check in as needed.

The potential for biometric devices is profound. The current shortcomings in the American health care system need unique and innovative solutions. Biometric devices can be part of that solution by discretely and non-invasively monitoring its users’ health. Contemporary Biometric devices are typically sold as wristbands, but the real technology is in chip-sized sensors—that theoretically can be built into anything in constant close contact with the body, such as clothing. Two UK firms–Oxford Nanopore and 454 Life Sciences – recently built devices that for around $1000 can sequence the human genome in a few hours using hair or saliva samples. Both devices are able to accurately identifying pathogens and screen for genetic mutations that increase risk of certain diseases. DNA can be easily obtained from a variety of biological sources, including skin samples. In the future, it may be easier and more affordable to accurately sequence and analyze an individual’s DNA using dead skin cells, which humans shed and regenerate at a rate of 30,000 and 40,000 per hour. In doing so, future biometric devices will be able to alert users of potential negative health outcomes prior to any onset. Biometrics could detect mutations, duplications or damage in a user’s genetic code. When a problem is detected the device will immediately send the information to a physician. If the physician deems this information to be significant, then measures could be taken to address the medical issue with environmental changes or even gene therapy—another medical technology on the horizon.

Overall, Biometrics are a huge breakthrough in medical technology that will not only become more affordable but also accessible in the years to come.