If you have an incurable disease, would you want to know? And who else should have access to your health data? As new technology is poised to revolutionise personal health monitoring, a panel of experts recently debated pertinent questions arising from these mind-boggling possibilities.
At the recent EuroScience Open Forum (ESOF 2014), Europe’s largest scientific gathering, thousands of scientists, policy-makers, journalists and students met to discuss the latest science has to offer.
One of the hot topics at the conference, held in Copenhagen, Denmark, was new biosensor technology that opens unique opportunities to monitor personal health and quality of life – as previously only seen in science fiction.
“We have the ability now to do these tests that we didn’t have 10 years ago. The technology has been crawling… but now it’s really taking off, opening possibilities in the very near future,” said Anja Boisen from the Technical University of Denmark.
“[Soon] these technologies will be available and we’ll start testing ourselves. Then the question is whether [we’re] ready to do this,” said Boisen, who organised a conference session on ‘How much do you want to know about yourself?’
Presentations and panel debate from the session ‘How much do you want to know about yourself’ at ESOF, June 2014. Video by BioLogicMedia (also available on YouTube).
One of the five scientists participating in the panel debate, Samuel Sia from Columbia University, USA, said that until now, health has been one of only few areas in society closed off to consumers. “We can download crazy videos on Youtube on making bombs… Technology is neutral, it can go either good or bad, but for some reason consumers have not had the ability to monitor what goes on inside their own body,” Sia said.
Armed with such information, we might better understand how we respond to medication, diet, exercise and so on – and adjust our lifestyle accordingly. “…Which people do all the time; they weigh themselves… But information like this is much more precise,” Sia said. “I like to track my own health [as] I track my own bank account information.”
Another panel member, Anthony Turner from Linköping University, Sweden, said it’s a matter of freedom and personal choice. But he stressed that personal health monitoring should take place in a regulated and informed environment, with the right support.
“It’s complex – it involves whole government structures. You might say the whole health service needs to be re-thought,” Turner said.
It also raises many ethical issues. Who owns the information? How do we share it in a secure way? Who do we share it with – doctors, insurance companies, authorities? “There’s a lot to sort out,” Turner said.
And of course, there’s the dilemma: if you have an illness there’s nothing you can do about, would you want to know? If you’re going to die in, for instance, four years, would you want to know?
By Lillian Sando