Last Friday, April 24th, marked the second annual Wired Health conference in London, UK, where members of the health care industry and curious spectators came together to discuss and explore how technology is shaping medicine today.
While Wired Health 2014 focused on harnessing self-monitored data, this year's agenda targeted disruption in health care.
In 1997, Harvard Prof. Clayton M. Christensen created the term "disruptive innovation" to describe how new technologies can alter existing markets or sectors by injecting simplicity, accessibility and affordability into what has become the over-complicated, high-cost norm.
Though the term "disruption" typically carries a negative connotation, in these terms, it points to positive change that shakes up the system for the better.
At the summit in London last week, members of the health care industry proudly harnessed this term and demonstrated how departing from the standard way of doing things has made a significant impact on the existing landscape of medicine.
Changing behavior through perception
"Psychology is technology," said Rory Sutherland, vice chairman of UK-based marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather, as he took the main stage. "What you call things affects how people behave."
Addressing advancements in understanding human behavior, Sutherland cited the rise in unnecessary visits to the UK's emergency departments coinciding with a shift in what it was called. Though it was once widely known as "Accidents and Emergencies," it is now referred to as merely "A&E," taking away the inherently bloody connotations and making it sound more like the initials of two people in love.
Referring to the emergency department by its full name on signs and in official literature could encourage patients to direct themselves to their GPs instead, decreasing the number of patients who unnecessarily use the emergency service and saving the UK's National Health Service (NHS) precious money.
"If you create a name for something," Sutherland added, "we automatically assume it's a norm."
He also explained that the way choices are presented can affect outcomes, particularly in the health care setting.
For example, when the NHS implemented the use of delayed prescriptions for antibiotics - when a prescription goes into effect a few days after an appointment, in a "wait-and-see approach" - unnecessary use of antibiotics decreased significantly.
In effect, changing the choice structure of things can alter behavior.
Removing the 'wrong' choice
Another man who recognizes that manipulating how choices are made can have positive effects in the field of medicine is Marc Koska, founder of the LifeSaver program. He noted that around the world, 1.3 million people die every year from infected needles that are reused.
After years of researching this problem, Koska came up with a simple solution to disrupt it: a syringe that is impossible to reuse. His K1 syringe is made on the same machinery and from the same materials as existing syringes, but it has an auto-disable mechanism that prevents reuse by employing a plunger that automatically locks in place and breaks if forced.
Koska showed conference-goers heartbreaking undercover footage of small children receiving injections with needles that had previously been used on HIV-positive patients, demonstrating the problem the global health care community faces.
The issue is so great that the World Health Organization (WHO) announced their third ever global policy, aiming to reduce unnecessary injections and ensure that only auto-disable syringes are used. This mandate will come into effect in 2020.
Koska noted that for every $1 spent on proper syringe disposal, over $14 could be saved on health care costs resulting from HIV, HBV and HCV. His charity SafePoint is working to improve this basic level of health care around the world. By taking the option of making the wrong decision out of the equation, Koska and colleagues are disrupting the unsafe practices that put patients at risk.
Bringing the element of choice to alternative limbs
For those who have lost limbs, there has been relatively little choice when it comes to what kind of prosthetic will become their new arm or leg. Though there have been advancements in so-called bionic reconstructions, the ability for a patient to take ownership over the design of their new limb has not really been an option - until now, that is.
The Alternative Limb Project, led by Sophie de Oliveira Barata, brings this choice to the patient, creating bespoke prosthetics for those who have lost their limbs. Each client can plan the design, and the company then works with product designers to create beautiful works of art that are also functional arms, hands, legs or feet.
Some of the beautiful creations on display at Wired Health even included secret compartments in which the wearer can store things.
Speaking to a packed crowd, de Oliveira Barata explained that one of her clients recently had the idea to add a drone to an artificial arm that can "fly off the arm like a hawk" and take aerial photos.
Her unique approach empowers her clients to take ownership of their limbs, making them stand out as works of art, rather than as something to be hidden away.
Work from the company was recently thrust into the spotlight when the UK's Channel 4 introduced singer and performance artist Viktoria Modesta as "the world's first amputee pop artist."
In the video below, Modesta wears several creations from The Alternative Limb Project, including the "Spike," the "Crystal" and the "Light."
Writing on the company's website, Modesta explains how, after a voluntary operation to remove her leg - which was damaged from birth - she did not want to hide her altered body:
"Initially, after my voluntary operation, I mostly wanted to get a leg that provided balance to my body in its shape. Three years after the amputation, I then saw it as an opportunity to regard the leg as a fashion item and an art project which seemed rather fun and exciting."
Disrupting the aging process
Another speaker who took the stage at Wired Health was Brad Perkins, of Human Longevity, Inc. (HLI) - a company that focuses on genomics and cell therapy. They are tackling diseases caused by age-related decline by building a comprehensive database on human genotypes and phenotypes.
Perkins began his career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), eventually spearheading investigations into the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001.
He explained that over the past 30 years, there has been a genomic revolution in bacteriology, in terms of how we study it, adding that "we humans are next" to go under the microscope.
HLI are currently working on building their database on human genotypes and phenotypes, and Perkins noted that "health care systems will be disrupted by this technology."
Interestingly, the integrated health records, along with clinical data that they are using to build their database, will become cloud-based and subjected to machine learning. HLI's 5-year goal is to achieve 1 million integrated health records so that they can fully interpret the meaning of the human genome.
"There is a potential to generate as many insights into health and disease as there has been in the last 100 years in the next 10 years," Perkins said, thus contributing to extended life spans.
Notable technological innovations
Between the Bupa Startup Stage - a platform for new companies to present their products and innovations - and the Wired Health Clinic - an exhibition where conference-goers were able to interact with new technologies - there was no shortage of interesting gadgets and gizmos.
One of the most striking gadgets was a noninvasive wireless cap, which acts as a neurostimulator. Named Starstim, the cap was created by Neuroelectrics, a company led by Ana Maiques.
The cap works by delivering a low current directly to the brain through small electrodes, and it acts as an electroencephalography (EEG) and accelerometry recording system.
Because the cap is portable, it can be used both in a clinical setting and at home, where patients can employ neurofeedback to balance their EEG.
Lumo graphic reader
When dealing with innovation, there are naturally challenges to overcome, and one of the biggest is funding. Anna Wojdecka, creator of the Lumo, spoke to Medical News Today about her search to find adequate funding to take her design from prototype to finished product. She described her product as such:
"Lumo is a low-cost graphic reader for the blind and visually impaired. It translates colors into sound and black lines into tactile feedback, enabling the user to read shapes, graphs and diagrams directly from a page and draw in color."
She added that the aim of her product is to "make learning environments more inclusive and enrich interaction between blind and sighted people." When the finished product is available, Wojdecka told MNT it will sell for between $150-200. She can be contacted via Twitter @helloLUMO.
Another notable gadget was the Tao WellShell, which is a handheld device that fits in the palm of the hand and works in tandem with an app to give the user a resistance workout anywhere. It can be used at home, sitting at a desk or even on a bus, train or plane.
In the realm of tiny handheld devices sits the Insulin Angel, which tracks a medication's temperature to help the user monitor and maintain effectiveness. In addition to warning the user in the event the medication has been forgotten, the Insulin Angel also tracks medication usage and waste, and displays results through a smartphone app.
Cupris Health smartphone otoscope
Given that smartphones have become our constant companions these days, innovations that incorporate these devices make other technologies easily accessible. Cupris Health is a company that is doing just that; they have turned smartphones into medical devices by employing clip-on attachments.
They displayed their smartphone-connected otoscope at the conference, explaining that parents can now take pictures of their children's ears and send the images and symptoms directly to the doctor, who can remotely advise on treatment.
How can these disruptions work together?
If conference-goers were hoping to be spoiled for choice, Wired Health 2015 certainly did not disappoint. The vast amount of startups, gadgets and solutions on display was staggering. Though the main theme of disruption was reinforced throughout the speakers' presentations and in the innovations shown in the main hall, there was a sense of disjointedness this year.
Whereas last year's conference was overwhelmingly focused on how to harness data, this year's focus felt a bit forced, as if there was no clear way to sew everything together. But perhaps this is indicative of just how quickly and in how many different directions the health care industry is moving.
Indeed, how data, research and innovation can be unified and harnessed to result in positive health outcomes is the challenge the medical community faces today. Perhaps Wired Health 2016 will focus on this issue.