Medicine Could Be So Much Better—And Soon

The future could be brighter for patients. What’s stopping us from getting there?

Medicine Could Be So Much Better—And Soon

First the bad news: You have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). (At least, for the purposes of this article.) COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S., and over 12 million Americans suffer from the disease, making it one of the more common—and costly—diseases in our medical system.


The good news? The future is here, almost, and life is about to get a lot better for COPD patients. In a connected future of smart medical devices, the management of chronic conditions can become vastly smarter, easier, and more effective.

Companies like Flex are already designing this future, but we’re not quite there yet. So, before we explore how the state of care will change, let’s look at how patients manage their COPD today.

A Disconnected Present

High-tech connectivity—smartphones, tablets, and increasingly smart speakers and other devices—is everywhere. But for a few reasons, it’s not yet the norm in most doctors’ offices.

What does that mean for you, our unfortunate COPD patient? Here is what your care might look like in our still-too-analog system:

1) At your first appointment, which is face-to-face, your doctor asks a lot of questions about your baseline physical activity, and you give your best guesses, but you’re not really sure.


2) If you’re lucky, your doctor might send you home with an inhaler, or a device you blow into to measure your lung capacity. But you’re only human: Sometimes you forget to use it, or to record your data, and sometimes you lose the data or forget to bring it to your next appointment.

3) You are prescribed medicines, but you occasionally forget to take them. You reach the end of your bottle or inhaler and need a refill, but it takes a few days and you miss more doses.

With all this room for human error, your care suffers. You’re less healthy than you might be, and you wind up paying more money. Your doctor asks you to come in every three months, whether you really need to or not. (“Eighty-six percent of the nation’s $2.7 trillion annual health care expenditures are for people with chronic and mental health conditions,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.)

A Possible Future: Smart Devices Everywhere

Now imagine a possible future for COPD patients like you, one where connected devices vastly improve your experience—and health:


1) You have a virtual consult with your physician about your symptoms and health status. The care provider has all of your health information in advance, from smart devices and apps, so it’s an informed, data-driven visit.

2) Your digitally equipped pill dispensers and inhalers likewise record your progress, send you an alert if you forget a dose, and automatically call the pharmacy for refills.

3) That device you blow into to measure your lung capacity? It’s a digitally enabled “smart spirometer,” automatically recording how well you’re doing each day. That data along with your drug inhaler and wearable data is continuously being analyzed by an algorithm. Critical insights are shared with you and your care team and empower better management of your chronic condition.

Sounds a lot better, right?

And here’s the strangest thing about this future: It could be here now. All this technology currently exists; it’s just not widely used yet, because one crucial piece is missing.

The Grand Vision: Devices That Talk To Each Other


Devices collecting data alone, in silos, offer only so much value. What we really need, say med-tech experts, is a digital infrastructure or operating system that securely connects these smart devices and applications across other health care IT systems and stakeholders.

If such an infrastructure were built—and, crucially, FDA-approved—medical professionals could not only collect data, they could also begin to share it, analyze it, and leverage it for insights. Your inhaler or spirometer data could not only be sent to your doctor automatically each day, it could also be anonymously aggregated with data from thousands of similar patients, allowing algorithms to tease out new patterns. This could ultimately lead to more personalized and effective treatments.

Flex, which has developed technology and connectivity solutions for Nike, Google, NASA, and others, is currently building an open platform for medical devices with several leading technology partners. Leveraging more than 20 years of expertise in working with leading health care companies and deploying over 75 regulated hardware and software health care solutions, Flex is developing BrightInsight to optimize Class I, II, III medical devices and combination products through real-time integrated data and actionable insights.

Dr. Kal Patel, senior vice president of the digital health group at Flex

“We’re built from the ground up to securely manage data and enable insights surrounding highly regulated medical devices and connected therapeutics,” says Dr. Kal Patel,  a senior vice president of the digital health group at Flex.

Patel is also a close student of how connectivity and artificial intelligence can be applied to improve health care for patients today. As he explained to audiences at the recent Fast Company Innovation Festival in New York City, he thinks the future is bright for patients. “I’d argue we can get to algorithms that have 80% to 90% specificity and sensitivity to know, ‘These are the folks who are likely going to end up in the ER, versus these are the folks who are doing great and maybe can even skip their three-month appointment,'” says Patel.

COPD sufferers everywhere—indeed, anyone with a chronic disease—could be much healthier at a much lower cost, he believes. “Medicine could be incredibly personalized and more effective,” Patel says. “It starts with securely harnessing the data, and getting it integrated in one place.”


This story was created for and commissioned by Flex.

About the author

FastCo Works is Fast Company's branded content studio. Advertisers commission us to consult on projects, as well as to create content and video on their behalf.