Healthcare: what’s tech got to do with it? (and what the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge shows us)

Over the past decade, technology has become increasingly important in the management of our health. For everything from fitness to diabetes to mental health to cancer – there’s an app for that.

But it’s not just apps and wearables. Investment in health tech is at an all-time high, and the yields make it increasingly difficult to distinguish between science fiction and reality. For example, sensors can now be incorporated into oral antipsychotic medication so that carers and healthcare professionals can track that it has been taken by the patient; amputees can play the piano with prosthetic hands; an AI-based algorithm can use activity tracked by your smartphone and smartwatch to predict your lifespan.

Where’s the real value?

No doubt, tech has been the driving force behind some of the most impressive leaps forward in the healthcare space over the past decade – but when it comes to it, will health tech ever be as valuable in this landscape as medical research and development?

A simple answer would be ‘no’. When it comes to battling diseases that kill us, traditional medical research and development yielding life-saving treatments are irreplaceable. But the answer is not so simple, and in fact, forces more questions.

How do we ensure the efficient diagnosis of disease at a stage where an illness is treatable? How can we ensure patients are compliant with their prescribed treatments? How do we raise the money to fund medical research and development in the first place? In 2018, the answer to all of these questions is ‘health tech’.

ALS: Disease management powered by health tech?

Also known as motor neurone disease, ALS has been on a journey over the past few years which simply would not have been possible without tech. Until the summer of 2014, the disease was underfunded, practically unheard of, and most importantly without a treatment breakthrough for nearly two decades.

Enter technology. It’s impossible to forget the Ice Bucket Challenge that dominated our social media feeds throughout the summer of 2014. Fun, shareable, easy and endorsed by celebrities, it was one of the first social media-focused fundraising activities of its kind – and it worked. Not only did average daily visits to the ALS website increase from an average of 17,500 per day to 4.5 million at peak, but the ALS Association received $98.2 million in donations between 29 July to 28 August 2014. That is compared with $2.7 million donated in the same period in 2013.

Whilst perhaps obvious, it is important to note that such a campaign would not have been possible without technology. Its success relied on our obsession with smartphone videos and our penchant for sharing our lives on social media channels. In the same breath, it has to be pointed out that the money raised through this campaign directly funded the largest ever study of inherited ALS. Fast forward to May 2017 and we see the FDA approve Radicava, the first new drug for ALS treatment in 22 years. Would all this have been possible without the technology-powered Ice Bucket Campaign? Certainly not.

The ALS tech story doesn’t end there. Radicava, whilst not a cure, can slow the progression of some of the debilitating symptoms of the disease – but the treatment regimen would be complex for people at the peak of health, let along for those who are battling their own bodies. The treatment starts with a daily one-hour infusion, followed by on and off schedules that vary from ten days to one month, and is only given in infusion centres, which requires transportation and coordination with care partners.

The answer? Mitsubishi Tanabe’s SearchlightSupport app designed to increase patient compliance. The app is designed to help patients at three specific stages of the treatment journey:

  • Pre-infusion: education, treatment planning, reminders
  • During infusion: mediation, mini-games
  • Post-infusion: positive reinforcement, social caring

Whilst medical research and development is undoubtedly at the centre of the advances in ALS treatments, it is the partnership with tech that makes the treatment the most accessible it can be to those that need it.

So can tech do it alone when it comes to disease management? Of course not. Medical research and development will always sit at the heart of healthcare. But as the late, great ALS sufferer Stephen Hawking once said: “We should seek the greatest value of our action.” Both medical and technological innovation has a part to play in healthcare – and by working in collaboration with each other, we truly see the greatest value of each in action.