20 years ago, to be deemed healthy you would have had to visit a doctor for a full medical checkup. The doctor would have poked and prodded you, taken your blood and sent them off to a laboratory for testing to determine your overall health. After a matter of days, sometimes even weeks, the results of your tests would come back through, and if everything looked good, then, as far as anyone was concerned you were deemed ‘healthy’. Things have changed a lot in twenty years and in the past two decades we have seen the term ‘healthy’ shift out of, and away from, doctors’ offices and hospitals and onto the high street, becoming a multi-billion dollar industry filled with food, pills, influencers, and test-kits.
In our diets, fruit and vegetables were pushed aside to make room for ‘health-foods’ such as blends of brightly colored powders that would turn your smoothies turquoise and set you apart as a member of the healthy elite. In advertising, juice diets and cleanses overtook magazines and publications, and on social media health-influencers arose to be idolized by their followers, making millions from the sale of their own products and body image.
One area in particular that revolutionized the health industry and which seemed to jump miles in minutes was the home medical testing sector, promising consumers access to their own detailed medical data, whenever they wanted it and without visiting a GP. Whereas once medical tests were conducted only by the doctor or at a specialist test center such as Priority, now consumers could evaluate their own health at home, from the comfort of their sofa, without needing to speak to a single human being. Tests can be ordered online, delivered straight to your door, conducted safely at home and posted back to the laboratory with results waiting in interactive dashboards in as little as a few days. The whole process is quick, relatively inexpensive and worryingly fashionable and has led to a new age of health transparency.
A new age of health transparency
Access to information
Whereas once medical information was difficult to come by, now anyone with an internet connection can access countless amounts of medical research, articles, and explanations through a simple Google search. With a wide variety of sources out there, even those with no medical background at all can educate themselves on any number of conditions, medications or symptoms without needing to consult a medical professional. This increased access to information can help individuals to manage their own health at home without needing to rely on emergency services, and can also provide an immense amount of comfort to those who would otherwise have struggled to manage their own conditions.
But with the freedom of information provided by the internet also comes the difficulty of ensuring that all medical information is accurate and taken from a reliable source. At present, anyone can post medical advice online, with or without a medical license, leading to an overwhelming amount of misinformation that often has ulterior motives. For example, there has been a rise in the number of fad diets and cleanses often publicized by health influencers with fantastic bodies, large social media followings but no formal accreditations, these diets or cleanses are usually accompanied by a paid-for product or e-book ultimately earning the influencer money. With so much misinformation online and seemingly everyone trying to make money from other people’s insecurities, the internet has become somewhat of a minefield and is screaming out for some sort of regulation, that being said if you know where to look and how to analyze medical sources it is still a very important source of information and one which can prove to be hugely beneficial to many people.
Access to personal health data
Thanks to advancements in technology, AI and the internet, consumers today also have access to more data about themselves than ever before and they can’t get enough of it. Whereas once tracking our ancestors through their birth certificates and our surnames was enough, now we can use our DNA to trace them back several generations. We’ve gone from needing medical assistance for personal health diagnostics, to be able to confidently self-diagnose at home, and as a result, we now know more about ourselves than our parents’ generation could ever have dreamt of.
With more information than ever before resting at our fingertips, we have the power to take more control over our health, to interpret our results and to take action if we don’t like what we see. Whereas once we may not have noticed an ailment until the symptoms forced us to visit a doctor, now we can see and monitor changes to our health ourselves, potentially helping us to stay ahead of more serious health issues and to avoid life-threatening diseases.
It’s estimated that one in five Americans has avoided going to the doctor in the past year due to cost concerns. When this data is extrapolated and applied to the whole US population this equates to approximately 44 million people who have avoided a health visit due to fears over the price they would need to pay. In these cases, access to, often far cheaper, tests at home could provide a much needed and more affordable solution, ensuring that the most vulnerable people in society do not fall through the cracks and can still gain access to important test information.
With a simple prick of a fingertip, we can find out if we have a food sensitivity, a healthy heart, abnormal hormone levels, vitamin deficiencies, a healthy metabolism, an STI and even if we are sleep deprived and stressed. There are literally hundreds of self-test kits available covering a huge variety of medical and health issues. We have taken self-diagnostics to a new middle ground, removing the need to see a GP, but is this transparency always healthy? Is there a darker side to offering people full health transparency?
The dark side of health transparency
Advancements in health and technology have had an undoubtedly overall positive global effect, but is there such a thing as too much information. Could we be on the verge of overstepping the mark?
Data can be extremely valuable but also extremely dangerous, especially if it is in the wrong hands or used by someone in the wrong way. There’s nothing stopping self-test individuals from misinterpreting tests, conducting them incorrectly or failing to share their findings with a physician and this could lead to worse problems.
Another key area for concern is who is using these tests and with no screening conducted prior to being able to order a test kit online, how can we know that those ordering them are going to be using them to benefit their health? Is providing a vulnerable person, perhaps with an eating disorder or mental health condition, with access to such detailed information about themselves not a form of medical negligence if its use would ultimately do more harm than good? Another area of concern is whether medical tests can be used to control others? Would conducting a test on someone without their consent be a form of assault? It’s clear that there are still many questions to answer when it comes to the darker side of health transparency and it’s important that we begin answering them to protect those who could be at risk.
The future of health transparency
It is estimated that the digital health market currently sits at a valuation of 206 billion U.S dollars, driven particularly by wireless and mobile health initiatives. With the desire for data continuing to rise this is a figure that is most definitely set to increase, so what is the future of health transparency?
The healthcare consumers of today are changing their expectations when it comes to the convenience, affordability, and quality, of the healthcare services they access, meanwhile, the continual rise of digital is redefining how they engage at each stage of the healthcare system.
Doctors and GP’s are grossly oversubscribed and healthcare systems are struggling, making it likely that the emergence of digital healthcare services will continue to increase in an attempt to take some of the pressure away from physical services. But with the healthcare sector notoriously slow to adopt emerging technologies we may still be struggling for some time yet until we see more widespread adoption.
When it comes to the use of personal data itself, as a generation, we have displayed a hunger for information in relation to our own health and wellbeing and the health-test industry is continuing to grow to meet rising demand. We are already seeing the emergence of self-test kits for cancer and even fetal deformities, could we start seeing a wider range of more intrusive health tests in the near future?
Ultimately, the future of health transparency is unknown, but one thing is for sure, we have entered an age with more access and insight into our own personal health than ever before, what we do with it, how it will be used and its benefits remain to be foretold.