Digital biomarkers: the opportunities and challenges
Twenty-first-century technology has opened up a new world of health and wellness insight for consumers, patients, doctors, and scientists. Accelerometers in our phones record the steps we’ve taken and the distance we’ve walked or run. Sensors in our fitness trackers and smartwatches measure our heart rate and sleep patterns. Apps and websites help us monitor our caloric intake and symptoms over long periods.
We call these data “digital biomarkers” or, usable health information collected from digital devices. When combined with professional medical consultation, digital biomarkers can help us cultivate healthy habits and behaviours, like exercising regularly and eating more wholesome food, and also give us a greater understanding of acute and chronic medical conditions or assess the likelihood of one developing.
But there’s much more to digital biomarkers than fitness trackers and smartwatches. New devices, many of them specialised for particular conditions, allow for not only real-time monitoring of complex conditions by measuring biomarkers like voice, heat, pupil movement and breathing but also active treatment.
An uncertain future
In nation states with public health services, preventative medicine is the priority. Stopping someone from getting sick is far cheaper than treating them once they are. Devices that send useful digital biomarkers to primary healthcare providers—particularly for those at risk of developing a serious condition—will help doctors catch illnesses in their earlier stages, bringing peace of mind to the patient and reducing the financial cost for other healthcare stakeholders.
Europe’s population is aging and living longer. For hospitals and healthcare systems in general, that means more money will need to be spent providing services for patients with chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease, which typically require treatment over years and decades.
Here, too, digital biomarkers can play a role. Doctors will be able to monitor patients with chronic conditions in real time, advising them when it’s pertinent to visit a hospital and when it’s okay to stay at home. On a large scale, and over the long term, this will help to massively reduce bed shortages, trolley queues, and ultimately save money for health departments, patients, and taxpayers.
Wild Card: the digital biomarker challenge
However, as with all emerging technologies, there are challenges in the way of mass adoption. Not all health data can be identified, captured or used. Many treatments that utilise digital biomarkers remain novel rather than routine. Clinical workflows, legacy systems, workplace culture, and EU and international regulations can all make adoption and integration of new digital biomarker technology difficult.
Furthermore, expensive and invasive digital biomarker treatments limit widespread adoption and are often counter-productive insofar as they increase the time a patient spends in hospital rather than at home.
Finding solutions to these challenges—and creating new, innovative products—is the job of the entrepreneurial Wild Card 2019 participant. The Wild Card programme aims to find the brightest minds in technology, science and business and give them the advice, connections and funding required to radically transform European healthcare. Are you interested in taking part? Learn more about the digital biomarkers challenge here.