By Carl Hammerschlag
I’ve said before that wireless technology is reprogramming human behavior. I’ve worried that we are becoming dependent on instruments that were intended to free us but are actually captivating us with their incessant demands. We are becoming addicted to the ping of an arriving call or text that triggers a burst of endorphins which stimulate the reward centers in the brain and urge us to want more. Eighty-five percent of Americans are never more than an arm’s length from their phones and can’t imagine what life is like without the pings. I worry that it is so hard for us to get away from our cell phones that there is no longer a life between the pings. I also want to tell you that the cell phone will change the practice of medicine in wonderful ways.
We are in the midst of a culture shift in health care delivery, moving from an interventional model to one that focuses on prediction and prevention. The new technology will help patients manage their health problems with recommendations from their doctor. Mobile apps for smartphones and tablets will let patients gather diagnostic data or help coordinate care, giving them an easy way to keep track of their conditions and treatments. Consumers are increasingly armed with “wellness” apps — simple devices to monitor diets, exercise, and weight to help them stay out of the doctor’s office — that make up most of the 97,000 health-related mobile-apps on the market.
Devices that were once only in doctors’ hands are now in the hands of consumers. They’ll be able to purchase phone apps to monitor their heart problems by taking an ECG and performing an ultrasound or echocardiogram. An ECG app costing $199 records and transmits your cardiac status to your doctor’s phone. A microscopic chip the size of a grain of sand is being developed that will circulate in your bloodstream and can pick up the warning signs of an impending heart attack. In the event of a cardiac arrest, there’s also a CPR app that can guide someone through the steps of performing CPR and using an automated electronic defibrillator.
In addition, there are a number of mobile tools to help people with diabetes lower their blood glucose levels. Type in diabetes on your phone, and you can download apps at costs ranging from free to $12. You have many different diabetes apps to choose from to quickly record your blood sugar, blood pressure, pulse, weight, medications, food (usually carbohydrates), and exercise. You can even print or email your blood glucose record to your health provider.
The new technology actually allows doctors and patients to transmit data while talking to each other. Even if it’s only for five minutes, they’ll focus on each other. It’s a relationship, and it’s changing the way doctors and patients approach health care. Take it from Eric Topol, a cardiologist and genomics professor at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Topol had just taken a seat on a cross-country flight when he received an urgent e-mail from a 63-year-old patient. The man’s heart was racing and he wanted to know what to do about it. After receiving data from the patient’s phone app that analyzes heart rhythms, Topol recommended a higher dose of medicine and calmed his patient, who suffers from atrial fibrillation. “It’s good I got on the Internet on the plane, otherwise he would not have had an answer for a long time,” said Topol, who prescribed an ECG app for his patient. “Many times this helps keep a person from having to go to the emergency room.”
Like Topol, many doctors think the apps are useful time savers and have the potential to make health care more efficient by speeding diagnosis, improving patient monitoring, and reducing unnecessary visits to the hospital or physician. The health care of the future is not about intervention but prediction and prevention. People will be monitoring their own bodies, listening to what it’s telling them, and making some intelligent choices about how to come to what they are facing. This means we can heal ourselves at home and in supportive communities that care about our wellbeing. This is one form of human behavior that we shouldn’t try to reprogram or change.
Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology — mind, body, and spirit medicine — and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership, and authenticity. He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world. For more information, visit www.healingdoc.com.