Written by Dan Townshend, Research Manager, Insights practice

Pharmaceutical companies are investing heavily in medical technology and it is easy to see why. Drug development has been declining for decades and there is a real need to find new ways of diagnosing, tracking and ultimately treating some of the more challenging diseases.

Using technology to make treatment decisions will mean that new scales for measuring indications or symptoms will need to be developed. In the past we have been limited to largely episodic, in-clinic measurement but now we can look at the kind of metrics that will help with increasingly complex neurological conditions, such as sleep patterns, number of words spoken in a day, and what proportion of the day we spend sedentary. And we can do so in a real world environment protected from the biases of the ‘lab’.

This really matters when you consider resources required to run effective clinical trials based on traditional scales collected episodically. At phase 2, a drug can appear to be acting effectively but by phase 3, it can show no improvements at all. Not only does this come at great cost to the pharmaceutical company (which ultimately affects the cost of all new drugs) but also to the thousands of patients that enter into a trial who may feel that they have wasted months or even years of their lives.

There are of course a number of challenges medical technology would have to overcome to be widespread, such as how to interpret data, what role the various actors play in this interpretation (bearing in mind we are bringing together individuals from numerous fields, including computer science, bioinformatics and health), and accessibility of the required technology. However, even if all these issues (and various others) were overcome, there would still remain one major barrier: public acceptability.

The success of existing lifestyle technologies and apps, such as FitBit, may suggest that people are increasingly accepting of the reliance on technology for making decisions about their health. However, having a vibrating watch encourage you to go for a walk is one thing, having an app tell you what treatment you should be on for your bowel disease is quite another.

How prepared would the public be to having their treatment decided by technology?

One way to approach this question would be to look at the rather timely issue of data privacy and security. According to Yuval Noah Harrari, eventually computers will “know me better than I know myself”. On the one hand, this promises to lead us to more effective, personalised medical care. On the other, there is something a bit “creepy” and unsettling about this.

If you were horrified by the recent collusion between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica and your social media data, you would be forgiven for having similar concerns about your health data. After all, it is far from clear who would have access, legitimately or illegitimately, and who would ultimately own it. In a recent PwC survey, 80% of respondents felt that healthcare apps should not have access to patient records. Clearly, there is some way to go in establishing trust.

That said, the emergence of GDPR does point the way to how we can embrace medical technology, if we can apply the same principles to the protection of personal health data. If governments take a lead in articulating the benefits of such technology powerfully (by pointing to the potential impacts to national healthcare systems, industry and, most importantly, to the patient) and couple this with robust safeguards people may be more accepting of it. After all, there are already organisations that have access to our personal medical records when they need them, such as insurance companies, and researchers also have access to our anonymised health data, undoubtedly to our collective benefit.

So long as data is secure, transparent and is ultimately controllable for the user, there is every reason to believe the public will come to accept medical technology and benefit from its many promises. All we need to do is to get the appropriate frameworks in place to allow it to truly flourish.

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