by Danielle Derijcke
Our health data is now at our fingertips – smartphones, devices and fitness wearables are ubiquitous. While we find their detailed readings interesting, on a much larger scale this data will prove invaluable in the design and planning of large clinical trials and population studies.
One arm of the Synchros project sought to take stock of the emergence of these devices and their potential role in developing and optimising research studies. They also explored the challenges and limitations associated with these cutting edge technologies.
What was abundantly clear to the researchers is that digital technology is rapidly transforming the way we live and work; keeping abreast of this ever-changing area will be challenging but necessary. Advances in areas such as mobile and wearable sensing devices, video technologies and machine learning, allow researchers to collect and process phenotypic data cheaply and conveniently. The speed and accuracy of this data collection, as well as the opportunity for continuous monitoring, affords researchers fantastic opportunities when it comes to developing and optimising patient and population cohorts.
Exciting future developments in this field include the increasing miniaturisation of sensor technologies, which will allow self-monitoring to control health and prevent disease, potentially alleviating the burden on the overall health system. Geographical Information Systems (GIS) have the capacity to link disease information with environmental and spatial data; this will be invaluable to the progression of worldwide healthcare.
Right now, social media can be used to access hidden and hard-to-reach groups and can be an effective way of helping patients with chronic diseases manage their health.
Despite the doors that technology will open in the research space, the ethical and legal issues associated with its use will have to be carefully considered. Issues such as consent and privacy will become even more critical, particularly in relation to social media and other methods of passive data collection, warn the researchers.
And despite the opportunities these integrated technologies will offer research, questions around the quality of the data will persist; the Synchros researchers note that it should be monitored closely.
Ultimately, however, these advances in new technologies allow researchers to collect and process phenotypic data with greater detail and precision, in more natural settings, over longer periods of time and with lower cost and participant burden than ever before.