How many steps have you done so far today? A couple hundred? A few thousand? Whatever the figure, I bet the numbers are in arms’ reach – literally. On the Fitbit on your wrist or in the Health app on your iPhone in front of you... Though realising you’ve got a few more kilometres to reach your target can feel a little disheartening, the simplicity of knowing has revolutionised our health and fitness awareness. And is pushing the realms of MedTech for patients like never before.
Counting sheep, steps, and calories
You know as well as I that steps are only the start. Heart rate reached, calories burnt, time spent in REM sleep – our smartwatches and smartphones are MedTechs buzzing with smart stats that help us to build a picture of our health. And boy, do we love it!
With each day that passes, a vested interest in our own healthcare is becoming a full-time part of daily life.
Wearable monitoring devices have become such a norm that I no longer bat an eyelid when someone’s Apple Watch buzzes in the office, telling them to get up and stretch.
The floodgates to a realm of possibility are well and truly open. That’s not only wearables monitoring our vitals, but playing a vital part in detecting warning flags for health conditions.
.MedTech to monitor diabetes
Take diabetes – more people than ever (4.9 million+ in the UK) have to regulate their blood sugar levels when they get too high. Nationally, the number of people with the chronic condition is continuing to rise 13.6 million people are now at increased risk of type 2 diabetes. There’s an urgency to increase awareness and reduce the risk, and there’s also a real focus on developing MedTech to help diabetics better manage the condition.
Like tracking steps, glucose levels can now be tracked on smartphones. The MiniMed™ 780G system from Medtronic displays glucose values on a type 1 diabetic’s handheld device, sending the person notifications when they’re going high or low. When insulin is required, the MiniMed’s pump system automatically adjusts insulin delivery to correct glucose levels.
This is happening every 5 minutes, 24/7.
That takes a considerable weight off the diabetic’s mind to constantly check their blood sugar levels and manually administer a dose of insulin.
Pushing the data-driven insights even further, and diabetics can really begin to build their own, personalised picture of how their body reacts to food, exercise, dosing. Insight helps diabetics choose the most appropriate lifestyle modifications to make their condition more manageable. And also helps to promote newly-diagnosed and long-standing diabetics to engage with their own management, lowering the chance of complications.
Using MedTech to empower patients
So, what’s common between step numbers and glucose levels? Empowerment. The fitness and healthcare sectors are beginning to think inside-out rather than outside-in. They’re focussing on the patient at the centre of the condition, rather than medicine itself. And treatments and devices designed for real life and real needs are the result.
As we feel more at home in this sci-fi-esque world, we’re only going to get more confident using MedTech tools to make decisions about our health.
Patient testing power
Look at how we responded to the introduction of lateral flow tests for Covid-19. Yes, I know we’re all over talking about the pandemic, but it prompted so much discussion around patient power. Symptomatic or not, we all wanted to know if we had it.
Never have we taken so much to swabbing our throats and noses, an action previously reserved for someone wearing a blue gown and questionable* footwear. (*Read Crocs, the brand with an overwhelming hold over the medical sector.)
Whilst initially, instructions for a positive result were clear – stay-at-home – as restrictions were loosened, we made our own decisions. Combining our increased knowledge of the infection’s risks with those lines on that little strip empowers us to make a choice that affects our health, and others’. And it’s this knowledge-choice combination that’s shaping the next era of MedTech for patients.
From your head to your toes, there’s (probably) a MedTech innovation for the list of chronic conditions that only seems to be getting longer by the day.
Monitoring sweat for biomarkers
0.81% of adults in the UK are estimated to be living with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the term used to describe two long-term conditions that involve inflammation of the gut: ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Thinking that less than 1% doesn’t sound like a lot? Well, what if I tell you that cases of the incurable conditions rose by 33% in the ten years between 2006 and 2016?
Back in 2020, University of Texas at Dallas researchers designed a device that works to signal flare-ups of IBD. The wearable that mimics a watch monitors sweat for interleukin-1β and C-reactive proteins. These are two of the key biomarkers (biological molecules that indicate a normal or abnormal process, or a condition or disease) that signal IBD. Whilst the presence of the biomarkers doesn’t necessarily mean the person is in an IBD flare-up, they act as a warning signal.
As the Cecil H. and Ida Green Professor in Systems Biology Science, Dr. Shalini Prasad, puts it:
“It’s like the check-engine light in a car. The warning signal doesn’t mean a patient is having a flare-up, but it could give the person the chance to intervene earlier, when the symptoms may be more responsive to treatment.”
All of that, from our sweat alone! And that’s not all those droplets of perspiration can help identify. Doctors could use the indication to sooner understand whether a treatment is working to ensure the patients are on the most appropriate treatment pathway. The timelier and more meaningful the information we’ve got our hands on, the broader the scope to improve quality of life.
Personalised cancer vaccines
Wearables, implantables, diagnostics – they all harness incredibly powerful data that becomes even more effective when used to personalise a treatment plan for an individual’s condition. And though I reckon it’s more of a scientific breakthrough than an innovation in MedTech for patients, January’s headline news about new realms of cancer treatment was certainly cause for optimism.
The UK government has made a deal with BioNTech that allows cancer patients in England to get early access to clinical trials that explore personalised mRNA therapies. (You’ll know of BioNTech thanks to their work with Pfizer to develop the mRNA Covid vaccination.) Tailor-made for the individual, this mRNA treatment provides the immune system with genetic code from the specific cancer. Instead of widely-used chemotherapy that targets lots of cells, including cancer, this treatment only attacks the tumour.
As soon as September, patients could be among the first to
“participate in trials and tests to provide targeted, personalised and precision treatments using transformative new therapies to both treat the existing cancer and help stop it returning”
according to Steve Barclay, UK Health Secretary. And by 2030, up to 10,000 doses of these personalised therapies could be delivered to patients.
The future of MedTech
It’s always nice to end on a positive note. This development remains indicative that treatments are getting more personalised by the day.
We’re in an era of outstanding MedTech for patients possibilities that far surpass the obscure, metallic devices we’re used to seeing doctors use behind the curtain on 24 Hours in A&E. And they’re being developed by the people, for the people.
That’s something we can all feel empowered by.
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