On a cold December evening, one of my cousins, nursing stomach pain and diarrhoea for most of the day, decided to seek medical help.
“My stomach is hurting and feeling bloated,” she complained. “Even after drinking water, I feel the urge to visit the washroom. I think my mistake was eating chat the day before from the street-side vendor. I do not have fever or nausea. I am not pregnant or due for my periods. It’s been a few hours since the pain started and it is not subsiding.”
“Though the symptoms are distressing, you need not worry. You seem to be having food poisoning,” was the response. “You should avoid spicy oily foods, caffeine drinks and keep yourself well-hydrated. If the problem persists, meet your general practitioner (GP)”.
This response was not from me or any other human medical professional – it was delivered by a smartphone app with which my cousin was exchanging messages. My cousin was happy that she saved a visit to the doctor and the expenses associated with it. A day later, she was perfectly fine.
In this era of information technology (IT), we are embracing technology very fast in our daily life. As much as these tools are sophisticated — be it automated glucose/BP monitors or Fitbit generation of devices — they are providing more awareness to people. In fact, telemedicine is a concept that is well-tested in the West.
In 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration approved around 30 health connected apps and devices, including mobile lung function tests to ambulatory blood glucose monitors that provided medical advice to the consumers. UK’s NHS has pledged support for regional research with these innovations for the next few years.
In the next decade, we will see clinicians/researchers experiment with smartphones to measure vitals, blood pressure and glucose levels, and perform lab tests ranging from liver and kidney functions to even infection markers.
The gradual but imminent transformation of a smartphone into a GP will be a mammoth shift in the healthcare infrastructure. This will enable people to get viable personalised information via their phones, empowering them to monitor their chronic conditions like diabetes or hypertension. This will also motivate people to adopt a healthier lifestyle and enable increased awareness about morbidity issues associated with common ailments.
However, this technology transition raises questions about privacy and security, which will have to be addressed appropriately.
Being a medical professional, who is tech-savvy, I have admired the advances that can reduce the burden of the already stretched medical system in our country. But as all things have two sides to them, the smartphone-based applications come with a pinch of salt.
As a Paediatric Allergist and Immunologist, I deal with a range of parents in my daily practice. Recently, a patient’s mom, an IT professional, came with a list of questions she had alongside answers from Google. She was not convinced with a few answers and wanted to check with me. Though I patiently answered her queries, I amusingly wondered if Google has put in as many years as a medical professional to practice medicine.
India, being at the cusp of digitisation in all fields, is cautious in embracing the benefits fully, which is true in the healthcare segment too. Physicians, who have practised traditionally, are implementing technology-based innovations such as electronic medical records, real-time imaging and mobile vitals monitoring, which has aided in increasing the quality care given to the patients.
But many among the medical fraternity are still sceptical about the baggage these advances carry. As information is available on the fingertips now, patients check the diagnosis on the phone when in a consultation with a clinician, who deserves the undivided attention. Moreover, the security concerns of the data stored in these health-related apps are not unfounded.
Striking a Balance
The development and availability of novel tools based on innovations in science and communications technology provide the clinician (as well as the patient) with an invaluable aid in order to achieve an objective diagnosis and concentrate on unmet needs. It is also true that we need to assess the challenges to the development and clinical integration of improved tests.
Having said that, the traditional tools used by a physician are irreplaceable. Stethoscope still remains the best screening tool for a physician before any laboratory tests or technological apps.
There is a need to balance the conventional practice with the emerging innovations in technology to give the patient the best possible medicalcare.
(The author is a Paediatric Allergist and Immunologist in Bangalore; email@example.com)