Picture this: an ingestible pill fitted with a sensor to digitally track medicines being injected; a virtual avatar to diagnose depression; or a smart contact lens in your eye.
What are digital therapies and how effective are they in improving our health?
No, these aren’t fictitious inventions in a sci-fi Hollywood blockbuster. These are realities in the exciting, game-changing world of digital therapeutics.
In the US, digital therapies are more commonly established. But here in Australia, digital therapies as complimentary path of treatment is virtually unheard of.
Digital therapies are generating a fair amount of attention throughout the medical industry, with many early adopters insisting them to be the ‘next big thing’ in healthcare. Not exactly surprising, considering their potential to improve lifestyle, enhance medical treatments, reduce healthcare costs and the overall strain on the healthcare system.
How Technology Is Changing Medicine
Since the 1950s, the acceleration of digital technology has been changing the way we live, work and play. Every day, companies are discovering new avenues for technology to make our lives more efficient, so it’s only inevitable this digital shift finds its way into modern medicine.
Today, we bank online, study online and even socialise online. Like most industries, the healthcare industry is merely adapting and articulating to our current needs and way of life.
Through technology, we’re now able to better track, manage and improve our own health. And the delivery of medical services to the community has been enhanced with easier access, reduced costs and alternative options for treatments.
In the US, the cost to develop a new drug has doubled every nine years since 1950. The situation in Australia is similar. The thing is, even after lengthy testing and approval processes, drugs can have unintended consequences.
How Digital Therapies Can Help
Digital Therapies are technological solutions designed to complement and perhaps one day replace traditional therapies. According to Glenn Smith, CEO at Tali Health, “They have the potential to dramatically improve the quality of our health for the long term, often by changing the behaviour that leads to disease or ill health.”
Digital therapies tend to fall into two categories, medication augmentation (when used in conjunction with medication) and medication replacement (when used as a standalone treatment). But, according to Smith, “It’s an incredibly new space in both Australia and the US, which people are still trying to categorise. Tali Train, for instance, could technically fall into either category because it functions effectively both as a standalone treatment and in conjunction with medications.”
Digital therapies are already improving the way we eat, exercise and manage our health. There are apps to help us quit smoking and mobile sensors that support the management of respiratory diseases. And then there are digital training programs like Tali Train, which provide proven opportunities to improve cognitive abilities in young children.
Thanks to their low cost, accessibility, adaptability and speed-of-deployment, digital therapies could have a transformative impact on millions of lives around the globe – and on ailing healthcare systems.
“The problem is,” Smith warns, “There’s an explosion of health apps and mobile devices on the market, which fail to demonstrate any real therapeutic value. To be considered digital therapies, treatments need to be clinically validated through evidence-based trials.”
TALI Train, for example, was assessed through double blind randomised controlled trials involving 76 children with attention difficulties and underlying developmental disorders. The findings (which were published in highly regarded peer reviewed journals such as Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and the American Journal on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities) showed significant improvements in selective attention, which were still present in a 3-month post trial follow-up.
Digital therapies have the potential to outstrip drug companies when it comes to evidence about their effectiveness because they have the ability to collect reams of behavioural data. Most pharmaceutical companies don’t track real-world results for their drugs because it’s simply too expensive. Through precise regimes and remote monitoring, digital therapies offer invaluable insights into patient behaviour enabling treatment to be tailored and personalised to improve outcomes for the individual.
TALI Train’s program of built-in analytics allows clinicians, parents and educators to assess a child’s performance on each of the exercises so that strengths and weaknesses can be identified, and the program adapted accordingly to trigger the best results. The research collected also provides invaluable data for continued research and further development of the program.
Another benefit is that digital therapies can often deliver treatment more cheaply than traditional therapy because of their accessible nature, thereby reducing demands on clinicians’ time. Treatments can be accessed at home, school and in a clinical setting. This flexibility lends well to people living in remote areas and those with busy, time-poor lifestyles.
The Future Of Digital Therapies In Australia
Still in its infancy, the potential of digital therapies to support Australians is tremendous.
Companies will continue to develop and refine new digital products to manage and improve our health using real-time data from patients. And the future of our healthcare is looking promising as digital technologies become more advanced, accepted and distributed.
For now, digital therapies are unlikely to be used as stand-alone treatments, but rather in conjunction with traditional therapy methods to complement their effectiveness in treating health conditions.