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Disease prevention-as-a-service: Bringing better health directly to consumers

Vish Kulkarni of Rockley Photonics explains how wearable devices could play a larger role in preventing viruses, such as COVID-19 from growing to severe status unnoticed.

In cybersecurity, prevention is just as important as protection. Prevention can help avert an attack before it occurs. Some cyber companies even offer “prevention-as-a-service” solutions designed to intercept cyber threats.

In the healthcare field, prevention has always been vital. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we should ask critical questions. First, how do we prevent another pandemic? And second, how do we stop the most vulnerable populations from suffering the impacts of a disease like COVID-19?

The people most affected by COVID-19 are those with underlying chronic conditions like diabetes, COPD, and cardiovascular disease. The COVID-19 death rate among this population is significantly higher.

[Read more: Embracing new digital tools]

One way of keeping all patients safer in the future is by monitoring health metrics on an ongoing basis. Prevention-as-a-service in health care is all about tracking everyday biomarkers that reveal important clues about an individual’s health — and ultimately preventing chronic conditions from growing to severe status unnoticed.

To do this effectively, we need to enhance the range of biomarkers detected and measured by wearable devices. A wearable device, for example, should be able to monitor multiple biomarkers — including core body temperature, blood pressure, body hydration, alcohol, lactose and glucose trends, among others. This is how we can shine a light on a person’s health and alert patients early to multiple disease states.

Retail health care

Going forward, the key players in prevention-as-a-service could be retail giants like Walgreens and CVS, rather than traditional healthcare providers like clinics and hospitals.

Already, the role of retailers like these is rapidly changing, as they provide more primary care services that historically have been the sole remit of healthcare providers. The delivery of flu shots at these businesses was the first step.

Today, the role of retail giants in delivering COVID-19 vaccinations has raised their profile and promises to strengthen their health relationship with consumers. The natural next step is to extend their patient engagement to the deeper role of healthcare providers.

[Read more: Diabetes management gets some high-tech help]

This is already starting to happen. Walgreens is opening dozens of full-service clinics. CVS is in the process of rolling out a fleet of HealthHUBs in its stores. And Walmart has launched scores of standalone healthcare centers offering primary care and urgent care services.

These retailers have existing patient relationships and a widespread physical footprint, so there is already accessibility in place. And due to their size and commercial nature, they typically have more advanced technology infrastructures. This gives them an edge over local healthcare providers because they can more seamlessly integrate rich patient-engagement tools into their digital environment.

Diagnostic testing, too, is moving closer to where patients live. Instead of going to a medical lab for a blood test and waiting days for the results, you can now go to a Walgreens to get the test done, have that test analyzed by a doctor via a telehealth system, then get your prescription, all in a matter of minutes.

Now jump ahead five years. What if we all had a small, noninvasive wearable device that continuously tracks a broad range of biomarkers and monitors our overall health around the clock? And what if we all could get instant alerts and early warnings if anything goes amiss, such as a sudden spike in thyroid levels or worrisome changes in blood oxygen level?

[Read more: Overcoming obstacles: Helping pharmacists’ roles evolve in response to COVID-19’s challenges]

That is true prevention-as-a-service. In this world, it becomes possible to warn patients of specific disease states and take the right preventive measures before diseases can gain a foothold.

The retail giants are key enablers here because they have immediate access to consumers and can drive behavioral change by seamlessly providing data-rich wearable devices directly to consumers. As a consumer’s health changes, these retailers could proactively send the right medications at the right time, further strengthening preventive care.

Boldly going where health care has not gone before

In the future, health wearables could create a unique spectral fingerprint for every individual, and researchers could start linking spectral fingerprints to specific disease states. As the technology matures, these devices could track more sensors and biomarkers to reveal a complete picture of an individual’s current health — and provide valuable insights into future health via predictive analysis.

Vish Kulkarni, SVP of Rockley Photonics

Vish Kulkarni is the senior vice president of Rockley Photonics.

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