Microfluidics, Quantified Self and the Disruption of Health IT
Tricorders, they aren’t here… yet. But what was at one point pure Sci-Fi is seemingly closer with each passing day. It doesn’t make the possibility any less amazing. If you’re not a Star Trek fan, you might not recall Tricorders are the small scanning devices the various generational doctors used with one seemingly simple scan and voila, the patient was diagnosed. Again, we’re not quite there yet, but breakthroughs in a niche field known as Microfluidics is creating rampant opportunity to bring disruptive Health IT advancements to life.
What the Heck is Microfluidics?
Good question. I digest a lot of content focused on MEMS technology (sensor technology making its way into all sorts of Web3.0 enabled devices) and microfluidics began appearing more and more often in my stacks. For detailed explanations on microfluidics I encourage you to read through a few select sources.
- The Individual Physicist – A New Wave of Microfluidic Devices
- Wikipedia: Microfluidics
But I believe I can deliver a decent laymen’s explanation and more importantly point to the impact on Health IT of such advancements. Plainly, microfluidics technology enables the analyses of incredibly small amounts of fluids. This is important because at such minute volumes, the things that make up the fluid – like varying types of white blood cells – behave quite differently than they would in increased volumes. The major benefit is the way the components innately segregate and separate at such micro volumes. Because of this, the cause of disease, cancer or even the common cold can be identified much more rapidly and with greater specificity.
Here is an example of a proposed real world application of microfluidics from a recent medGadget article:
‘The body has many types of white blood cells, each with different disease-fighting roles. White blood cell counts already help doctors diagnose some diseases and monitor treatment of others, including cancer and AIDS, but current cell-counting methods require fairly large blood samples and costly, slow equipment that can be operated only by trained laboratory technicians.
One possible application of the new sensor would allow doctors to solve a common, vexing problem: determining the cause of a runny nose. Instead of using the current trial-and-error method for diagnosing the problem, doctors could take a mucus sample from the patient in their office and measure the white blood cells present. Elevation of one type of white blood cells could implicate allergies, another cell type could point to a sinus infection and a third type of elevated cell count could suggest that the runny nose was simply due to the common cold.”
Here is where we stop caring about this particular technology and start envisioning how it feeds into a growing – and most likely explosive – trend in Health & Wellness, the Quantified-Self.
The Consumerization of Health IT
We’ve previously discussed the perfect storm of enabling technologies and self-desire of individuals to more accurately track their well-being. The growing niche of individuals who utilize the available tech are known as self-quantifiers, the movement, the quantified-self. What is currently niche is on the cusp of mainstream acceptability – the linked article above explains why – and as technologies like microfluidics evolve and make their way into mainstream devices, it’s fairly easy to predict the outcome. In the same exact way employees have disrupted traditional enterprise IT structures by demanding their company adapt to a BYOT (Bring Your Own Technology) philosophy, technologies that allow for ever more accurate and increasing self-tracking, will disrupt Health IT as we know it. If you think this self-serve world of Health IT is preposterous, have a look at this “eye-phone” innovation that attaches to a mobile device for fast, accurate eye-exams (pictured left) and this video where-in a breathalyzer is utilized to detect various forms of cancer. Is it too far fetched to envision a personal care “kit” that includes varied device extensions so that individual’s can routinely perform these types of self check-ups? For those who doubt the market truly exists for advanced quantified-self analytics, I’d point you to companies like InsideTracker who already deliver their users advanced bloodwork diagnoses tracking key biomarkers, while crafting supremely individual nutrition and fitness goals. The quantified-self market is very real and is primed to grow at an astounding rate.
Now the trick for those in the Health IT sphere is to re-envision how they create value and for whom. As “ordinary” individuals take on newer and greater responsibilities for tracking their own body’s overall wellness, a real shift is needed in design, interfaces, data delivery and network connectivity tying their self-tracked progress to their professional health-care providers. How this ultimately shakes out is still anyone’s guess. What is becoming much clearer is that the quantified-self movement – which is still “fringe”, dominated by very early adopters – is poised to enter a much more mainstream market. With that entry to the mainstream, bold innovations are likely to be born and because of this, disruption of Health IT as we currently know it.
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image credit: gbmnews.com, bigthink.com, insidetracker.com