Your home is getting smarter. For just about every question you have about your health and how to manage it, there’s a device that can answer it.
A smart bed monitors your sleep quality and patterns and adjusts to your movements. A smart refrigerator tells you when your milk has gone sour, and if you have enough greens in your crisper drawer. Wearable monitors track your diet, activity, blood pressure, and blood sugar and send the results to your doctor.
High-tech devices like these are empowering us to be more aware of our health, and helping our doctors catch problems early, says Vivek Cherian, MD, an internal medicine doctor with the University of Maryland Medical System.
“Consumers taking this additional step to take responsibility for their health can hopefully lead to strides in preventative medicine, versus the more Western approach of racing to treat the illness,” he says.
The Digitally Connected Home
The smart home of the future is available today, thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT refers to the many billions of devices that are connected to the internet and sharing information.
The same technology that lets you see who’s at your front door on your smartphone also lets your doctor monitor your blood pressure and blood sugar level, and check whether you’ve been exercising as often as you should. The IoT connects you to your doctor, and vice versa.
Linking You to Your Doctor
A once-a-year checkup doesn’t give your doctor the full picture of your health. “So often, we have this really small window of time with our patients. If we’re lucky, it’s 15 to 20 minutes,” says David G. Armstrong, MD, a professor of surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
Throughout the rest of the year, your doctor still needs to make sure that you’re taking your medication, keeping your weight and blood pressure under control, and managing every other part of your health without actually seeing you. “So many of these things now can be very readily measured at home,” he says.
All of that health information is streamed in real time to your doctor’s office. If these devices sense a problem, your nurse or doctor gets an alert to check in with you.
Some of the newer technologies go a step further. For example, there’s a smart bathmat that can sense areas of heat in your foot — a sign that a diabetes ulcer is starting to form. It can tell your doctor before that sore causes enough damage to require amputation. “Now we can identify these skin problems and stop them before they start, really inexpensively,” says Armstrong, director of the Center to Stream Healthcare in Place (C2SHiP).
A pendant worn around your neck can predict when you’re about to fall, and alert both you and your doctor. “Instead of, ‘I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up,’ now it’s, ‘You’re about to fall, and you’re about to not be able to get up,'” Armstrong says.
Smart appliances might soon get even smarter. The refrigerator of the future will tell you whether you’re putting enough healthy food into it. Your toilet will sense whether you’re going to the bathroom too often, or not enough.
“You can add a layer of automation on top of smart appliances,” says Ashish Atreja, MD, chief information and digital health officer at UC Davis Health. “That is something we’re working on right now.”
Helping You Age in Place
One big application for smart appliances is to help older adults safely stay in their homes, instead of having to move to an assisted living facility or nursing home. With remote health monitoring, doctors and family members can keep tabs on their patient or loved one 24/7.
Not only can sensors monitor vital signs like body temperature, heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, but smart homes can use artificial intelligence, or AI, to spot differences in normal patterns — for example, if you’ve skipped breakfast or you aren’t sleeping enough. Any changes will alert your family or doctor. In case of a medical emergency like a heart attack or fall, smart devices can summon an ambulance.
Smart devices can also act as medication managers. For example, your pillbox can not only let you know when it’s time to take your medicine, but also dispense the pills and explain how to take them. “Apps that remind patients to take their medications are invaluable, especially for elderly patients, where it’s not uncommon for them to be prescribed over 10 medications,” Cherian says.
Smart technologies can also sense changes in the environment — for example, if it gets too hot in your home or there’s smoke or gas in the air.
The Risks of Smart Home Technology
With so much connectivity comes a few privacy pitfalls.
Whenever you send sensitive health information over the internet, there’s a chance it could get into the wrong hands. “Obviously there’s a security risk,” says emerging technology expert Carmen Fontana. “Someone can hack into your information.”
On your end, it’s important to have a strong password and keep up to date with any software updates, which typically include security updates.
Also ask your doctor what kinds of information they’ll collect, and how they plan to protect your security while you’re using smart connected devices. And remember that “you can revoke access at any time,” Atreja says.
What to Think About Before You Buy
Just as you would when buying a car, do your due diligence before purchasing smart devices, Atreja suggests. Ask your doctor for recommendations and read reviews about any products you plan to buy.
Another consideration is cost. Today, many of the technologies your doctor prescribes are covered by Medicare and some private health insurance companies, but if you buy a consumer product like a refrigerator or fitness tracker, you’re on your own.
“Understanding what you’re getting and how you’re paying for it is really important,” Fontana says. Will you pay only a one-time fee for the hardware, or is there a monthly subscription? Will it cost you more to unlock certain features?
Also investigate whether your device will integrate smoothly with the other technology platforms in your home, such as Google Home or Amazon Echo. Atreja calls this the “connected care ecosystem.”
Finally, check whether the device has an active social media community, where users share tips on how to optimize and troubleshoot. “It really helps you get the most value out of your device,” Fontana says.
Remember that no matter how high-tech a smart health device might be, it can’t replace your doctor. “If an app or smart technology highlights an area of concern, it is of utmost importance to proactively communicate that information with your health care provider, so they may advise you accordingly,” Cherian says.