Why you should care
Because everyone hates the waiting room.
Going to the doctor basically just sucks. Not only are you there because you feel like crap, there’s the sterile waiting room, the magazines from 2007, the poster with that cheeky model smiling while she gets a shot. But the worst part is all the poking and prodding, especially if you get sent to the lab for blood draws, urine or feces samples or worse. Wouldn’t you much rather dodge the doctors altogether, especially if you’ve got a chronic ailment — diabetes, say, or a heart condition — that subjects you to their tender mercies on a regular basis?
Maybe you can. Home medical testing has been around for years; just think of pregnancy sticks and blood pressure cuffs you can buy at the drugstore. But a new generation of startups aims to make the job of tracking your health, and even reporting the results back to your doctor, a whole lot more personal. Cellscope, for instance, lets parents shoot ear canal photos with a smartphone and send them to the pediatrician for a remote diagnosis instead of dragging a crying kid to a waiting room. Healogram monitors wound recovery, while cervical cancer testing swabs and hormone-tracking finger pricks help women take health care into their own hands. But the shift from physician to Fitbit may help men most of all, given that they’re more likely to skip checkups and are more likely to keel over from heart disease and diabetes.
It’s a potentially big business. Market research firm IRI estimated that U.S. sales of “home health care kits” at drugstores and grocery outlets reached $440 million in 2012, up 10 percent from the previous two years. Now that Apple and Google have made it easier to store and analyze health information on your smartphone, that number is likely to grow even faster. It’s all part of a larger trend toward “personalized medicine” — that is, medical care that’s essentially customized. Such tests may go well beyond what your doctor currently prescribes. You can, for instance, already get a genetic readout of sorts by spitting into a tube and sending it to a company like 23andMe; tests that can determine how well particular medicines will work for you aren’t that far away.
Somewhat counterintuitively, all signs point to a health industry that will return to its roots, sans leeches.
Of course, it can be difficult to tell tried-and-true medicine from, say, marketing hype. iHeart Alive, the company responsible for the iHeart fingertip sensor, for instance, measures “aortic stiffness” by reading your pulse and blood-oxygen levels. From there, the company, says it can determine your “inner age” and risk for spinal problems and organ disorders. While its site links to multiple studies that support the science behind the device, it also warns consumers that the iHeart sensor is “not a medical device.”
Such language is common for medical devices that aren’t yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration, whose job is to weed out medical quackery from scientific treatments. Sure, apps could reduce costs for patients and physicians alike, but what if the device doesn’t do what it promises? The past few years have given us faux technologies that claimed to treat acne by shining a blue light on it, diagnose skin cancer with a snapshot and advise insulin doses for diabetes patients through urine samples. Pediatrician Chad Rudnick uses Cellscope and fitness bands in his Boca Raton, Florida, practice, but says that doctors have to be selective. “The vast majority of apps out there are junk,” he tells OZY.
Still — and somewhat counterintuitively — all signs point to a health industry that will return to its roots, sans leeches. Historically, at-home medical care was the norm, not the exception it’s become today. House calls accounted for 40 percent of doctors’ visits in the ’30s, says Vaughn Kauffman, a PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant who studies global health disrupters. That number plummeted to less than 1 percent by the century’s turn. But tomorrow’s house calls will be digital, facilitated by phone or video chat. “By 2020, we’ll see virtual visits double,” says Kauffman.
More self-help tools are on the way. Consider Cue, which measures testosterone levels and other things using blood, spit and, yes, boogers (bachelor parties are going to have a field day). Medella Health, a Toronto startup, is working on a prototype contact lens that reads glucose levels for diabetics, potentially keeping more people out of the hospital.
Federal insurers and welfare programs are increasingly focused on preventive medical care, and home testing and tracking tools play right into that. Kip Piper, president of the Health Results Group, envisions conducting brain and heart scans from afar. Of course, the white coats won’t rally behind these methods until they’re convinced they’re getting good intel on us: “Right now, if I track my blood pressure, I can delete the result if I don’t like,” Kauffman says. Fair enough. But if those apps also mean no more strangers commanding, “Drop your pants,” count us in.