When we think of disease prevention, it usually means lifestyle choices. Diet, exercise, and safety practices like seatbelts are all part of the solution to lower risk of chronic diseases and live a healthy old age. But disease prevention includes other, less obvious lifestyle routines, like getting regular doctor visits and decreasing sedentary habits. We discuss how technology contributes to disease prevention for some common conditions that afflict Americans—especially Americans over 40—and how common devices go a long way to changing daily habits.
HOW CAN TECHNOLOGY CONTRIBUTE TO DISEASE PREVENTION?
Before discussing how technology specifically relates to disease prevention, it’s important to establish that yes, diseases can be prevented, mitigated, and slowed down. We know diseases are preventable because scientific research has uncovered many of the causes of modern diseases, including those that affect millions of Americans. But changing behaviors is difficult, even when armed with knowledge.
IS DISEASE PREVENTABLE?
Many diseases are preventable. Tobacco-related diseases like COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), heart disease, and lung cancer can be prevented by quitting smoking. While this cause-effect relationship between smoking and disease is well researched and documented in clinical trials and epidemiological studies, this does not mean even educated and aware smokers will quit. Many barriers exist in helping individuals quit smoking, including reinforcement of the habit through friends, family and the workplace, along with the physiological addiction of nicotine.
WHAT ARE LIFESTYLE FACTORS?
Lifestyle factors refer to what is controllable in disease prevention. Safe driving, eating nutritiously, and exercising regularly are typical examples of lifestyle choices. Studies show that chronic diseases such as diabetes are highly responsive to changes in lifestyle. A person diagnosed with diabetes type 2 (adult onset) will often get advice from the doctor to lose weight, exercise more regularly and take medication. Two out of three of those recommendations deals with lifestyle factors.
TECHNOLOGY HELPS ALTER LIFESTYLE CHOICES
Most of us function out of habit, usually because we learned a certain way of living from our parents. Children who grow up in houses where parents regularly exercise, play sports, and move around tend to take on these habits. As a result, poor role models can set children up for poor lifestyle “choices” that aren’t necessarily real choices, as they’ve been handed down. But technological devices, like fitness trackers or smartphone apps, can help individuals who never established good habits to change. Since personal change is hard, the technology acts as both a buddy and an educational tool to alter lifestyle.
WHO USES TECHNOLOGY?
Typically, wealthier and more educated consumers use technology for disease prevention, but this is changing. Smartphones, PCs, and apps are used by huge numbers of people, not just the wealthy. These interactive and customizable programs are easily learned and can be used by anyone who has a smartphone or PC. Fitness trackers like Garmin or Fitbit are expensive, costing more than $100, but these costs will drop as the devices evolve. College-educated adults between 22 and 55 are the biggest consumers of personalized health-promoting technology. Older adults (55+), however, are growing in market share.
MOST ACCESIBLE TECHNOLOGY FOR DISEASE PREVENTION
Since disease prevention is accomplished with proactive lifestyle changes in large populations, education, engagement, and empowerment are critical. Technology that promotes self-awareness offers empowerment to the individual. Technological devices that engage people are far more likely to be used. Those who use their technology regularly educate themselves about their own health and their knowledge can also impact their community. The most accessible technology for disease prevention includes fitness trackers, molecular detection systems, and coaching and tele-health.
For improving lifestyle choices, fitness trackers are hard to beat. Consumers love them, wear them, and talk about their personal data. Fitness trackers are wearable devices that monitor heart rate, count steps, urge the wear to get up and move, and record sleep patterns – and those are just the basic models. The technology included in fitness trackers began with accelerometers that count steps, but as silicon chips miniaturize these devices can carry more data and monitor more bodily processes. The more the wearer knows, the more empowered he becomes to exercise more, sleep better, and take steps to change.
MOLECULAR DETECTION SYSTEMS
Genomic surveillance, which uses DNA profiles to detect and predict disease, has an important role in disease management. Prior to cracking the code of the human genome, serologic (blood) testing was the most common method for assessing infectious agents. This is changing, as PCR cultures are beginning to replace cultures, which have been slower and less reliable. Using molecular detection, epidemics and dangerous outbreaks like Ebola can be tracked more accurately.
COACHING AND TELE-HEALTH
One area in which lifestyle plays a part is mental health. Disease management for depression and anxiety alone can have a tremendous impact on functioning for millions of adults. Using platforms such as Breakthrough, licensed and experienced therapists can treat patients beyond typical in-office hour scenarios, using video conference-style interaction. As more technology like Breakthrough is used, insurance companies will develop payment methods to ensure care is quick, consistent and affordable. This is already occurring and making a significant impact on how mental health services are accessed.
PUBLIC HEALTH AND TECHNOLOGY WORKING TOGETHER
Public Health is a discipline that takes into account the health of whole groups. A common public health campaign might be vaccinations for all school-age children or a media campaign to reduce youth smoking. Public health workers are interested in ensuring large groups practice certain health-promoting behaviors to reduce the overall incidences (new) and prevalence (total) of disease. Sometimes the individual may have to give up certain rights and freedoms to support public health goals so that more people can benefit in the long term from a healthier society.
PUBLIC HEALTH AND COMMUNITY HEALTH THREATS
Technology such as HealthMap and Outbreak Near Me can alert individuals and organizations to imminent disease outbreaks, thus keeping the spread of dangerous diseases like viruses and infectious disease at bay and controlling the pace of their spread. Real-time information aggregated from news sources and official agencies will help public health organizations in decision-making but also keep consumers up to date. This type of technology is geared toward mobile apps so that individuals in affected areas can keep up to date and protect themselves and their families from possible infectious agents.
Adopting new health behaviors happens more readily with social support, including friends, family, and online relationships. Helpmedoit! is a web-based and text-based intervention that allows subscribers to set goals, receive monitoring by others, and set up self-monitoring systems. This program focuses on exercise and diet, but others may branch out to mental health, sleep and other key areas of lifestyle intervention. In achieving goals around physical activity and dietary choice, individual changes can affect families and create a self-supporting feedback loop to improve overall health.
TOBACCO, ALCOHOL, AND OTHER DRUGS
Tobacco control—helping people quit, or preventing youth from becoming addicted—receives substantial funding from National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Cancer Institute (NCI) because more than 400 million Americans die from tobacco-related diseases each year. PatientsLikeMe is a user-generated platform that connects individuals with others who share their health concerns. Quitting smoking, alcohol, and other drugs is more likely with social support. Peer support and platforms such as PatientsLikeMe are already being used to support individuals who are in various stages of quitting.
In certain areas of public, the education of those who are living in rural areas is critical in changing poor health outcomes. For example, rural areas may not have the advantage of prenatal care, resulting in more birth complications. Pre-natal education for women is often accomplished with dedicated health workers, or health educators, who travel to areas where poverty is high and schooling is rare. New technologies educate not only the public health workers but their patients and can change health practices for generations who live in poverty and struggle with access to quality healthcare.
Technology is changing medicine and has enormous potential for disease management. Social media creates vast webs of interactivity in which health information exchange provides new levels of social support to those patients who may be socially isolated. Technology to prevent infectious disease is even more exciting as communication about outbreaks and epidemics is faster and more accurate than in past generations. But perhaps the greatest potential for patients is using technology to support lifestyle changes to fight chronic diseases such as diabetes and COPD through patient education and support.
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