Keenan: Both comfort and creepy technology being developed in health field

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Breadcrumb Trail Links Men An attendee wears an AIR2 x MicroClimate full face mask at The Venetian Expo during the Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 5, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada.Patrick T. FALLON / AFP) Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON /AFP via Getty Images Article content The annual Consumer Electronics […]

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The annual Consumer Electronics Show is a carnival of the coolest and creepiest new technologies. This year I attended virtually which wasn’t as much fun as actually trying the new toys. Still, there was plenty to see in the health area.

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For the first time, a health-care company, Abbott Labs, sponsored a keynote speaker. The company’s chairman and CEO Robert Ford explored the convergence of health and technology in what he called “human-powered health.”

Somewhat predictably, he touted the company’s FreeStyle Libre continuous glucose monitoring system for diabetics. It replaces finger pricks with a one-second scan of a sensor patch worn on the upper arm. The sensors last for 14 days, and the system, along with competitors like Dexcom G6, is now covered by many provincial and private health plans.

According to Diabetes Canada, “Adult men are more at risk of type 2 diabetes compared to adult women.” Let’s face it, we also like gadgets. Some glucose monitoring systems provide alerts if your blood glucose goes out of a target range. You can also choose to have the device share data with your health-care provider, although most doctors I know are way too busy to monitor this.

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There are times when you want your personal medical device connected to a professional. Ford gave the example of an implant that delivers electrical stimulation to the brain for patients with conditions like Parkinson’s disease. Men have about 1.5 times the risk of this disease than women.

Neuromodulation implants can stop tremors, but they sometimes need adjustment. This used to mean a trip to the doctor’s office. Dr. Fiona Gupta of New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital demonstrated adjusting one remotely using an Abbott product called Neurosphere Virtual Clinic. Watching on video, she can adjust the device while the patient moves around the house interacting with pets or even playing the piano. “This gives me the opportunity to personalize their deep brain stimulation,” she says, and it “has been a life-changer for my patients and their loved ones.”

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Another theme of this keynote, and many other products at the show, was the idea of rapid at-home testing, and not just for COVID-19. Ford showed off a new device that tests for biomarkers associated with traumatic brain injury. After that collision on the ice or, skiing into a tree, you can find out in 15 minutes if you need to go to the hospital.

An attendee places a finger inside the mouth of Yukai Engineering Inc.’s Amagami HamHam play-biting cat robot, during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Patrick T. Fallon / AFP
An attendee places a finger inside the mouth of Yukai Engineering Inc.’s Amagami HamHam play-biting cat robot, during the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada. Patrick T. Fallon / AFP Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON /AFP via Getty Images

If you have a smart scale in your bathroom, there’s a good chance it’s made by a company called Withings. They claim to have invented that whole category in 2009. This year they showed off a new scale with a handle that you pull up and hold at waist height for 60 seconds. The product, called Withings Body Scan is billed as “the first connected, at-home, health station”, but has yet to receive regulatory approval.

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Only you can decide if you want to invest a minute of your day to know if there’s more fat in your left or your right arm or how old your arteries appear to be. To be fair, it can also assess things like “your nerve function over time” which, according to Dr. Shika Anand, the company’s chief medical officer, can be clinically important. Peripheral neuropathy is a common complication of Type 2 diabetes. You will need to track your data over a period of time and also find somebody who cares enough about you to interpret the clinical-grade data emanating from your home device.

That common theme of needing “someone who cares” suggests that there may be a job in the future called “health data monitor.” In a brainstorming session I did with a group of Alberta pharmacists, I suggested that this role might be a natural fit for them.

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Part of the fun of the Consumer Electronics Show is the weird and wacky products that companies bring to the floor. I turned my students loose, asking them to find the creepiest and silliest technologies of the year. For creepy, they came up with the Sengled Smart Health Monitoring Light. There are already smart light bulbs that can change colours or kill bacteria, but this thing can also monitor your heart rate and body temperature and track you around the house. It can even distinguish between different family members. Of course, all this data is being sent, somewhere, and that’s part of the creepiness.

My students were almost universal in selecting the stupidest product from this year’s show – the Amagami HamHam, a stuffed animal robot whose only function is to nibble on your finger like a kitten or a baby. You can see this product, from Japanese robotics company Yukai Engineering, at https://hamham.ux-xu.com/.

There are two serious takeaways from this forlorn little creature. It has a ‘Hamgorithm’ that selects one of 24 nibbling styles like “Holding Tight Ham.” That’s just technology overkill.

The second conclusion is that no matter how weird, somebody will like a product and even endorse it. Yukai Engineering got Masahiro Shiomi, a human-robot scientist, to say that “gestures like play-biting are expected not only to bring comfort but also reduce stress and provide healing.”  To each his own, Dr. Shiomi.

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