From the introduction of the X-ray to the latest genetic-mapping devices, medicinal and technological advancements have always gone hand in hand.
Many of the everyday PC and general health technologies we take for granted are the direct by-product of technologies initially developed for the health professions.
But specialist clinics and hospitals are no longer the only places where such technologies reside.
From self-diagnosis websites to advanced insulin trackers, there is a mass of health-related technologies at our disposal. It pays to keep your wits about you, though; hustlers are keen to cash in on this sensitive field.
March 2007 saw the launch of Google Health, a unique service that aims to allow users to take control of their medical records while at the same time promoting the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and improving the well-being of its users.
Though critics hammered Google for its blasé approach to personal health data, its intentions at least appear genuine and munificent. There's no universal health care system in the US; no NHS to serve up standard treatment and be the butt of stand-up comedians' jokes. Google's attempt to de-privatise health records was seen by some as a benevolent gesture intended to make a genuine difference – much as its ongoing digital Library Project is intended to help keep the world's books alive.
We organise our daily lives through our PCs. Think about it: chances are you arrange meetings via email and Twitter, plan driving routes and directions through Google Maps and even manage your personal finance online. So, Google asked, why shouldn't the most important aspect of our lives – our health and wellbeing – be as freely and easily managed?
It's a question that many websites are asking, from dieting sites to online weight trackers and communities built around specific diseases and conditions. Google Health puts users in charge of their own medical documents. Full medical records, a complete prescription history and appointment and procedure information can all be imported into one place thanks to a partnership with the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS).
According to its Terms of Service, Google Health doesn't actually qualify as a covered entity under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States. Critics argue that the terms of the privacy laws set out under the Act cannot therefore apply to Google, and so renders Google Health unaccountable and open to abuse – accidental or otherwise.
In the UK, NHS Direct offers a service not entirely dissimilar to Google Health, minus the access to medical records. As the benefactor of a £16million investment drive, both the phone line and website have been a huge success for users and practitioners alike. For the patient, NHS Direct offers a simple question-and-answer progression through to diagnosis via its self-help guide. Symptoms that prove more serious are identified and a directory of local pharmacies and health services is also available.
The upshot is that common, minor complaints can be self-diagnosed and treated with a visit to the pharmacy while more serious symptoms will produce a page telling the user to get themselves to hospital. The theory is that only the most serious cases will then turn up in the GP's waiting room.
Regardless of intention or privacy concerns, services like Google Health and NHS Direct demonstrate a shift in the general public's view of self-diagnosis – and in particular, how acceptable and reliable it is. If we think that something's wrong, we now have new ways and means to speculate what the problem is. That's not always a good thing, however.
Online health checks
Self-diagnosis websites and online health checkers have been generating a huge amount of revenue for their owners over the last decade, and consequently many health professionals look upon them with some disdain.
"There's a litany of websites that quite simply promote misleading and ill-informed diagnoses," states Dr Frasier Bruton, a leading UK academic and practising GP who contributes to medical health titles including Pulse and the British Medical Journal.
Bruton's research has specialised in the phenomenon of self-diagnosis via the Internet, and his findings are backed up by GPs the country over.
"Within the last six years, GPs in general have found an increase in the number of patients making appointments due to self-diagnosed conditions," he says. "Although this element is purely anecdotal, a 2005 questionnaire found that 70 per cent of UK GPs had patients booking appointments after self-diagnosis.
"Rather than appointments being made to find out what's wrong and deal with the problem, more patients are saying things like, 'I have gastroenteritis and I need a course of antibiotics,' when in fact they have an upset tummy. In simple terms it's a huge waste of a GP's time and resources, and on a greater scale it has an emotional and psychological impact on the patient.
"The kinds of medical situations that would best benefit from new technologies are almost exclusively available to only the tech-savvy few," Bruton adds sceptically. "Doctors with access to webcams are a great idea in principle, but the people to whom such access would be of the greatest benefit – the poor or elderly – simply don't have the facilities to make use of such features."
Bruton's advice is simple. Consult online for consumer advice rather than a professional diagnosis. The more people who know how to examine themselves for breast or testicular cancer the better, but checking and diagnosing are two separate issues, according to Bruton. "I've seen websites in the US that have downloadable melatonin charts for people to self-diagnose potentially cancerous moles and sun spots. That's not just irresponsible – it's immoral."
Diagnosing a medical problem should be the role of qualified health professionals, and most of us would still turn to our doctor first rather than a website. But what about our general health, whether it's getting in shape or losing a few pounds after Christmas?
Developers such as Cyser have already tied the huge health and fitness market to the PC. Cyser's Fitday website and supporting software is just one example of the myriad dieting and fitness facilities available. In Fitday's case, the online calendar sets personal goals and offers general health tips while the software gives personalised dietary advice, sets exercise goals and can import data from heart-rate monitors to assess the calorie-burning potential of your exercise regime.
The world-renowned WeightWatchers program has a website in a similar vein. It has an extremely active online community and features support forums, 'tips of the day' and meal plans as well as personal weight programs that are produced from the data that you feed it.
Losing weight and staying it has always been a growth industry – after a fashion – and hundreds of personal trainers and health clubs now offer bespoke online support.
Matt Roberts is a leading personal trainer and author who has moved his business model almost entirely online. Rather than running a traditional consultation and program, Roberts now offers a full online training regime and support environment.
Members of Roberts' community complete a personal assessment that Roberts overlooks before providing a tailored fitness regime that's constantly updated as fitness and health improve and training goals change. The system even has integrated SMS support to jolt everybody into action when training day rolls around.
Heart-rate monitor specialists Polar now offer an accompanying software package that records performance results and tracks your fitness progress. Again, though, the onus here is on personal performance – you need to motivate yourself.
But personal fitness and general well-being doesn't have to be arduous; Nintendo's Wii Fit phenomenon put pay to that. The Wii Fit system has been a resounding success, and while it's nowhere near as complete as a fully bespoke exercise program, it has proved that fitness can be fun.
Where its motion-sensitive controller and Balance Board stop, peripheral manufacturers have – as ever – jumped to ill the void, and the fitness phenomenon is spilling over from the Wii to other game consoles that are more traditionally used solely for serious gaming.
Enter the Logic 3 Dance Mat for the Playstation 3, which certainly raises the pulse by demanding that you follow intricate steps on screen upon the pressure-sensitive mat underneath your feet.
Similarly, the PCGamerBike by 3D Innovations allows you to play your favourite games via the bike's pedals and controls. So rather than using a control pad and keyboard to run around Grand Theft Auto or World of Warcraft, the PCGamerBike allows you to independently assign any key on the keyboard to your forward and reverse pedal motion – meaning that driving games are a great workout as well as terrific fun. It's certainly more of a laugh than a trip to the gym.
Managing your health
For diabetics the world over, the daily ritual of blood testing, insulin injections and careful eating is the accepted norm for handling the condition.
Within the last decade, the proliferation of self-testing kits and self-injections have made the condition – both Type 1 and Type 2 – more manageable for sufferers. Even Great Britain's legendary Olympian Sir Steve Redgrave rowed into the record books with an oar in one hand and an insulin-packed hypodermic needle in the other.
But a select few diabetics in the United States are managing their condition from home with greater effectiveness than ever before. A dual trial is in its second stage of testing in coordination with the United States' Diabetic Society. Each of the 200 participants has been given a PC preloaded with specialist software together with a digitised version of the standard self-testing kit.
Rather than continually monitor their blood-sugar levels, the participants need only prick their fingers twice a day and feed the machine their blood sample to have a daily recommended calorie intake, injection programme and even meal suggestions returned by their PC.
Similarly serious conditions are benefiting from PC-based technology too. The One Laptop per Child foundation is a celebrated education project providing the famous XO laptop to children the world over. In sub-Saharan Africa, though, the project has quite literally proved a lifesaver. For the 25.5 million people in that region infected with HIV, survival depends on a complex combination of drugs that must be taken at specific times of the day.
The lack of wrist watches and other time pieces within these communities has always proved a stumbling block for successful HIV treatment, but with an automated satellite-based calendar system being specially developed for the XO laptop, it's hoped that treatment can be more successfully regulated.
Our increasingly digital outlook on life can help to keep us it, healthy and active. Of course, there are pitfalls to watch out for and traps to avoid, but in some cases – like the treatment of HIV in poor nations and the management of a diabetic condition – your PC really could prove to be a lifesaver.
First published in PC Plus, Issue 277
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