OnQ Blog

Your next health tracker might be your house

Jul 28, 2016

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Dr. Berci Mesko (a.k.a. The Medical Futurist) is a geek physician with a Ph.D. in genomics, an Amazon top 100 author, and a technology consultant specializing in the future of healthcare and digital health. He tweets as @Berci. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

Picture this: Clara, a generally healthy 30-year-old, hasn’t been feeling great. She’s experiencing night sweats, grogginess, and unexplained weight loss. She isn’t the only one noticing these symptoms; her smart home caught on, too. A sleep-tracking mattress, smart scale, and digital mirror recorded the changes. As it turns out, the data from those devices might point to something more serious, so her smart home sends her an email telling her to go to the doctor.

This is the future of healthcare. Household objects — televisions, scales, fridges, mattresses, and more — will work together to paint a holistic picture of our health.

Ultimately, ultra-aware homes might touch every facet of personal healthcare. Connectivity will provide peace of mind to patients with chronic conditions who often live alone, tracking everything from medication compliance to activity and biometric data, such as weight and blood pressure. For people who are generally healthy — like our friend Clara — the smart devices in our homes will serve as an early warning system for illness and suggest lifestyle changes to improve wellness. Most importantly, our homes will automatically dial 9-1-1 in emergencies.

This distributed and seamless approach to personal health is a far cry from the wearables and mobile health devices we use today. Right now, data collection is largely limited to patients with chronic conditions, who might use doctor-recommended connected blood pressure cuffs, smart glucose monitors, or digital health apps. At the same time, without a medical background, there’s not a lot the average person can glean from all this data.

The first step in making health monitoring more universal is to tap into the growing network of smart sensors in our homes. In fact, elements of the future always-aware home already exist. For example, Google Nest products keep tabs on day-to-day movements, Kolibree toothbrushes help improve users’ oral hygiene, Beddit and Withings sensors convert mattresses into sleep monitors, and there are even chairs that record EKG readings. From here, we can easily imagine toilets with bio-sensing microchips, bathroom pipes that track water usage, and digital mirrors that measure basic vital signs.

Once whole-home sensor networks are in place, the next step is to integrate and manage this data privately and securely on a unified home-health platform and ecosystem. Like smart-home sensors, these technology platforms are already in development. Google, Apple, Qualcomm Technologies, Inc., and others are creating unified hardware and software hubs that can gather data from disparate smart-home devices and apps that can easily analyze it.

IBM Watson and similar machine-learning systems are able to decipher large, unstructured datasets, which will allow our homes to spot patterns in our habits that might indicate illness. If issues are small, doctors will be able to advise and treat patients via on-demand telemedicine services. And, perhaps one day, prescriptions and medical supplies may even be delivered by drones.

That’s not to say that smart-home-centered healthcare won’t come with its own set of challenges. Constant monitoring raises ethical and psychological questions, and wearable devices have taught us that individuals struggle to stick to the lifestyle changes the devices are intended to foster. Doctors will need to find ways to continually motivate patients to follow through on the prompts their smart homes deliver. What’s more, with the amount of personal information generated by these sensors, we’ll need HIPAA-like regulations to protect patient data. And, of course, users will need to opt into the home-health platform, rather than allow sensing to take place without their knowledge.

The homes of the future will be filled with dozens — perhaps hundreds one day — of sensors. The challenge will be to make sure we’re getting the most out of them and the data they collect, without interfering with our day-to-day lives. Ask yourself: If your home could spot a cold coming days in advance and offer advice to help fend it off, wouldn’t you want to know?