Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 19 October 2019

Healthy living: the two sides to technology

From computers to health devices, advances in science have improved our quality of life. But there are also cautionary tales.
Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National
Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National

Technology can be a wonderful thing. Thanks to some incredible advances in recent years, humans are living longer and are arguably enjoying a better quality of life. We are more connected, more informed and have more opportunities to monitor and assess our own health.

But there are downsides. With most things now available at the touch of a button, are people becoming less active? Has the internet created a generation of cyberchondriacs? Are fitness trackers really making us fitter?

In the past 35 years, obesity has more than doubled worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, and one in three adults isn’t physically active enough. Most experts blame televisions, computers and cars.

Globally, the WHO says, there has been “an increase in physical inactivity due to the increasingly sedentary nature of many forms of work, changing modes of transportation and increasing urbanisation”.

Computers are often blamed for contributing to sedentary lifestyles and problems with posture or back pain, but they also serve as a great tool to educate and connect.

When it comes to medical care, technology has unquestionably improved our health. Imaging technology such as scans and ultrasounds diagnose people faster and more accurately than ever, while surgeries are less invasive and prognosis is better.

DNA profiling now shows women their chances of developing breast or ovarian cancer; and HIV tests on newborns take hours rather than weeks, thanks to new diagnostic technology.

And in two recent cases, doctors printed 3-D organs to better understand, prepare and practise for complex surgeries.

Princess Haya bint Al Hussein, wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, told a conference in January that treatments tailored to meet patients’ genetic make-up could soon be a reality in the UAE. Diagnostic tests, DNA and molecular testing can create specific treatments for individual patients.

“We are still bombarded with cases of diabetes, heart disease and cancer that should make us wonder whether we need to do more than just have a universe of healthcare provision where one size fits all,” she said at the Leaders in Healthcare Conference.

In the right hands, technology undeniably improves our health, but it can be misused.

In recent years, the “Dr Google” phenomenon, which refers to people going online to search for symptoms, has been growing and millions of us search our medical symptoms every day. A 2013 study showed people who self-diagnose were more likely to think they had a serious illness. There is even a word for people who compulsively search the web for symptoms of illnesses – cyberchondriac.

This year Google announced a new symptom-checker that learns about the individual through their searches and provides more personalised information.

In order to take better control of our health, billions of us turn to mobile phones or wearable trackers to keep tabs on our well-being. Mobile applications can now read heart rates, check UV levels and record activity levels. But while wearable fitness trackers such as the Fitbit and Jawbone are incredibly popular, there are questions about their effectiveness.

Two large studies, one published in the The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology and the other in the Journal of the American Medical Association, recently concluded that wearable fitness trackers have little or no effect on a person’s activity levels or health.

The study in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology found that the use of fitness trackers, alone or in combination with cash incentives or charitable donations, didn’t increase activity levels enough to noticeably benefit the health of wearers.

Similarly, the study published in September by the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that health counselling, rather than activity trackers, was a more effective tool for finding the motivation to lose weight.

However, as with most things in life, moderation and the way we choose to use technology is key.

In India, for example, the government has collaborated with the WHO and ITU, the United Nations agency for information and communication technologies, to launch an anti-smoking campaign that uses mobile phones to increase access to programmes that help users quit smoking. So far this year, two million people have signed up for the mTobaccoCessation initiative.

Mobile phones, the WHO says, provide a great platform for health promotion and can be a useful tool in countries with such vast populations that other methods of communication wouldn’t be feasible.

Updated: November 17, 2016 04:00 AM

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