Consumer-facing digital tools show promise in helping consumers and doctors gain insight on health and disease
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Consumer-facing digital tools have led to the birth of so-called digital biomarkers, which show promise in helping consumers and doctors gain insight on health and disease. However, these new technologies face some roadblocks to being adopted.

A report issued by Rock Health, “The Emerging Influence of Digital Biomarkers on Healthcare,” describes the potential advantages of digital biomarkers and some of the challenges associated with using this tool.

“Digital biomarkers are consumer-generated physiological and behavioral measures collected through connected digital tools,” the report’s authors explained. These new technologies might report previously validated measurements or they might deploy these known measurements for novel insights. For example, blood pressure measurement already provides insight into cardiovascular risk. But it might also be linked to major depression.

Through smartphones, consumers have the flexibility to continuously track their heart rate or blood pressure, rather than occasional checks in clinical settings. This is an example of the “incredible opportunity” digital biomarkers provide for “for fluid data transport with ownership of data shifting from the industry to the consumer,” the authors noted.

For instance, the MyHeartCounts tool enables users to consent to share their cardiovascular health information with a researcher at a university on a daily basis. The more types of health data consumers collect, the more they begin to become data aggregators. “The digital footprint that consumers leave when they engage with the Internet, through web browsing or social media activity, provides novel data that can be leveraged for healthcare purposes,” the authors explained.

Digital biomarkers show promise as a research tool, enabling researchers to collect data over many years. Compared with longitudinal studies such as the Framingham Heart Study, the Nurses’ Health Study, and the Women’s Health Initiative, collecting data through digital biomarkers may be a more feasible and cost-effective way to capture longitudinal data.

The report also envisions integrated panels of traditional and digital biomarkers to better understand how disease states work.

“There is great potential to apply digital biomarkers to medical domains that are not well understood, such as psychiatry and neurology, especially if digital biomarkers are combined into phenotypic signatures,” the authors observed.

Harnessing the full potential of digital biomarkers won’t be a simple process, however. Regulators and researchers alike will be taking steps to validate the reliability and accuracy of these tools. In addition, they will have to clear the big data hurdle, continuously processing and storing vast quantities of data when most electronic medical records aren’t designed to handle such tasks.

“Establishing insightful relationships is only the first step before the industry can truly capitalize on the value of digital biomarkers. Challenges around evidence generation, infrastructure, incentives, and workflow remain,” the authors cautioned.