We’re future-focused here, always debating when we’ll finally drive a flying car, teleport in an instant, or regrow amputated limbs. We speculate on what creative solutions will fix problems we didn’t know we had. Technological developments are driving our society forwards at an ever-increasing rate. In healthcare, new innovative and revolutionary drugs are continually being developed, yet our exploration of how to help someone live the life they want, despite their health conditions, remains low on the technological development agenda.
On World Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Day, I’ve been thinking of my friend Ava who has this condition. She recently told me excitedly that her husband turned their home into a robot for her birthday and, from the video she showed me, I’m impressed (although a little worried an evil sentient computer now controls their home … especially as the lights sometimes turn red…).
This life-changing present is particularly cool because:
When I think of a way to sum Ava up, her diagnosis doesn’t cross my mind. To me, she’s the person who showed me a ‘real-life’ pool table, and how to hit those balls. She’s adored by everyone she meets, a fan of true crime, and a fantastic nurse. Yet, healthcare today reduces these complexities into a one-dimensional human facet: “the patient suffers from MS”. This oversimplification often means a blinkered approach is taken that solely focuses on treatment, as opposed to a more holistic one that aims to not just treat the condition but to enrich and empower people’s lives.
The technological breakthrough and mass availability of products like Amazon’s Echo was something that Ava’s husband saw and utilised to enrich their lives. It has given them something fun, entertaining, non-medical, AND makes their lives easier, especially for Ava.
This has made me think; ‘what other technological advances in the non-medical world could be used and applied to people with health conditions?’ I asked Ava what she thought current and future technologies had in store for people with MS…
Ava: Yes, for my birthday recently, my husband installed an Amazon Echo in our bedroom which is linked to a smart lightbulb and socket.
It's well known that MS can cause heat intolerance in some people, but it's only recently begun to be more broadly recognised that, in others (like me!), it causes intolerance to cold. We sleep with a fan on because my husband’s a very warm person, and I used to absolutely hate having to reach my arm out of the covers in the morning to turn it off. Now I can just say 'Alexa, fan' and she does it for me so I don't have to get my arm cold!
Both that and the light also just help to conserve energy for doing other things, which is a big help. It's difficult for most people to understand how crossing the room to turn off a light can be tiring, but the varying and unpredictable levels of pain and fatigue in MS can be crippling, even in someone who looks entirely well.
Ava: There are constant, amazing developments in medical technology like functional electrical stimulation, implantable pain relief devices and so on, but I truly think that so many of the smart home devices hitting the market now show incredible promise for people living with disabilities.
Ava: I would like to see occupational therapists explore how consumer devices can be utilised to enable people with physical limitations.
I would also like to see medical VAT exemption applied to these gadgets or, even better, companies being kind enough to provide them on a free or subsidised basis.
And, I would like to see the government and businesses supporting young people with big ideas to bring them to fruition. I have backed crowdfunded projects for awesome things that have made my day to day life easier (like tessellating coffee cups that allow me to carry two in one hand), and I hope that small scale innovation will continue to flourish and solve many of life's inconveniences for people with and without disabilities!
World MS day has given us time to celebrate global solidarity and hope for the future of MS, whilst reminding us of the important role technology still has to play. The widespread inclusion of technology within healthcare isn’t just an unmet need for those with MS, but something that can have a huge impact across the sector as a whole. With so much technology at our fingertips we should be looking at what we CAN do today, and planning for a future where this technology is used to its full potential.