Longevity can be the future if we tackle digital health first
How can we discuss longevity, when we don’t even have the ability to download our medical records from healthcare institutions? How can we improve our healthcare status if we refuse to become more proactive with our own health? How can policymakers deal with the issues surrounding life and death when they lack understanding about how big tech companies operate?
There are many issues facing us today that need to be dealt with first so that we can have control over them going forwards. Many people consider that age will be turned into a standalone condition rather than an eventuality. There will be treatments that have a specific target that will aid the extension of our lives, years which will be spent in good health. It isn’t just a question of research, but it’s also a sociological one too because to extend our lifespans, we first need to start with digital health.
Through this article, we look at some of the issues that first must be tacked before we turn our attention to that of longevity. But first, we take a look at longevity itself.
The maturing of the life-extension field
Living a longer, healthier life is quite understandably, a very enticing prospect for many. Perhaps you would live long enough to visit other planets, just like we visit other countries now. You could get to play soccer with your great-great-great-grandkids, and who knows, you might even get to see the Time Pyramid at its completion.
The American Board of Medical Specialties doesn’t recognize anti-aging as a specialty yet, and nor does the American Academy of Anti-aging Medicine’s professional standing, nevertheless, some of the best scientists of our century like Craig Venter and Aubrey de Grey are working towards bringing the longevity and into a whole extension of itself. Co-founded by Dr. Aubrey de Grey, the Methuselah Foundation is funding anti-aging research, and the key goal is “Making 90 the New 50 by 2030.” She has also helped start the SENS Research Foundation that conducts longevity research too. Human Longevity, on the other hand, was founded by Craig Venter, who is famous for human genome sequencing. His company is dedicated to researching the potential to live longer in a healthy way.
These endeavors have also attracted big tech companies, start-ups, and other major players from academia into the longevity field. The secretive, Google-backed Calico, founded in 2013, undertakes longevity research. and Stanford University has its own Center on Longevity. Also, researchers at Harvard recently discovered a protein that could reverse the aging process of mice.
Bristol University in the UK has an ongoing study that is looking at robotic muscle implants to slow down the effects of aging. And American start-up company NaNotics is creating nanobots that will “mop up” the molecules from circulation that trigger aging and diseases. You can already have your body cryopreserved by Alcor for $200,000, a process that will “pause the dying process! until future technology can restore your health.
While many of these developments might not be able to cure aging entirely, there is a growing interest and investment into the field that is tackling the issue. Aubrey de Grey already believes that the person who will live to 1000 years old has already been born.
What we need to tackle first
When we consider all of the technologies that are currently being developed to prolong healthy lifespans, robotic muscles, cryonics, nanotechnology, etc, these all form part of disruptive technologies that are defining digital health. Therefore, once the technology allows it, longevities will also face the same problems. In fact, they may be worsened if the digital health issues aren’t already resolved.
Let’s look at the issues that we need to first tackle before we can even contemplate topics like longevity.
1. The need for a cultural transformation
Digital health was defined by the first peer-reviewed paper as “the cultural transformation of how disruptive technologies that provide digital and objective data accessible to both caregivers and patients lead to an equal level doctor-patient relationship with shared decision-making and the democratization of care.”
The aspect of cultural transformation is big but often overlooked. Even the most innovative technologies can curb diseases or extend someone’s lifespan, however, they won’t really have an impact or adoption until stakeholders in medicine from policymakers to patients are well versed about their benefits and risks.
Medine policymakers and professionals need to contemplate the issues arising from these new technologies. This will allow them to better deal with the medical as well as the ethical problems that the tools bring with them. They could serve as guides and help patients to navigate their way around these new technologies being brought into healthcare.
It is now the case as big tech companies that aren’t traditionally involved in medicine have begun securing their footing in healthcare. But, with recent developments, policymakers’ poor grasp on medicine has been highlighted. Take Mark Zuckerberg’s hearing following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, for example.
So until tech companies understand how to handle our data, what will policymakers do to address the arising issues with companies that offer life and death outcomes with their advancing technologies?
2. A shift from health IT to digital health
IT in health is fast becoming a staple part of many modern clinical facilities. The integration of patient data in electronic health records (EHR) has seen these systems improve the old traditional methods of paper-based records. Now, could-based record keeping is no longer prone to getting lost. Some, however, believe that EHR and IT systems only add to physician burnout, suggesting they are time-consuming and likely of cyberattacks. The latter could potentially cripple an entire system just like the WannaCry ransomware attack did on the NHS. In severe cases, it could even lead to patient death, like the case in Germany after a ransomware attack happened at the Duesseldorf University Hospital. Because of delayed care due to the attack, the patient sadly died.
The looping together of health IT and digital health is quite wrong. For example, let’s discuss the “Gary rule.” Gary is an IT specialist, who by himself can fix health IT concerns like out of date antivirus software. However, if there are issues that Gary alone can’t fix because he needs input from stakeholders like analyzing patient data from wearables and addressing other related tech issues, then it becomes a digital health issue.
Unlike health IT, digital health can remove the admin burden from, or even assist medical professionals, thus letting them spend more time with patients. For example, AI can help to reduce alarm fatigue in nurses. Medical robots can reduce cross-infection from COVID-19 patients. So without moving to an era of digital health for solutions to integral parts of a hospital setting, how can stakeholders in the sector adopt new technologies and new therapies relating to longevity?
3. Embrace the patient empowerment movement
With the advancements in healthcare and better access to the medical data that digital health tech gives us, patients can be more proactive than ever before and go on to manage their own health. By using wearables, patients can track their fitness activity, or they can order direct-to-consumer genetic sequencing kits that help them to understand their risks for ailments better. Or, they can join web-based patient communities to gain a better insight into their issues.
The medical ivory tower has changed since the hierarchical model of the past that completely barred patients’ access. The patient’s of today demand a more active part in their medical decision-making, and their wishes for an equal doctor-patient relationship is more prevalent now. However, there still remains reluctance from doctors when it comes to empowering patients.
One study suggested that some healthcare institutions give patients “conflicting information about requesting their records and, in many cases, give blatant misinformation or limited information.” And one company, Epic – based in the US, downplayed the federal government’s efforts to allow patients to access their own health records with ease. The CEO of Epic wrote to hospital administrators, asking them to disapprove of the new rules. However, by allowing patients to access their own data, roadblocks in healthcare would be avoided. Also, by patients knowing the information held about them, they are more likely to spot any errors or omissions in their data.
If the big players aren’t supporting the demands from patients, then patients will turn to alternative solutions. Take Hugo Health, for example, they connect patients with their medical records and only move the data with their permission. The authorities who regulate this should be supportive of these efforts and guide patients, rather than letting patients turn to unregulated third parties.
If we cannot access our own medical records freely and make decisions in a regulated and secure landscape, then how will this work in the future with technologies and therapies that are suited to aid our longevity?
Until we address longevity issues
We may only have covered three of the major issues within this article, however, many more exist in practice. There is a lot of learning to be done in order to prepare us for the adoption of these advancing technologies, some of which could help us to live for longer. From privacy issues to big tech’s influence over healthcare, we need to continue to bring these issues to the forefront so every stakeholder in medicine is aware of them.
Only by tackling these issues, can the healthcare sector be better equipped to manage future technologies and the problems that go with them. We all need to keep abreast of these emerging topics as this is our future.