One of the major goals of Big Pharma is to enlarge its customer base, which is to say, sell more product. One way to accomplish this is through the medicalization of "conditions" that previously have not been viewed as diseases. One example of such a condition is obesity. This medicalization process has also been referred to as "disease mongering" (see: Disease Mongering (i.e., Medicalization) by Pharmaceutical Companies; Medical Device Mongering, a Variant of Disease Mongering). The reason that Big Pharma spends huge amount of money each year on direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertisements on TV is to circumvent physicians by creating demand for prescription drugs among consumers (see: Effectiveness of "Direct-to-Consumer" Drug Advertisements). Although consumers can't write prescriptions, they can certainly request a particular drug from their physician.
Given all of this, it should not be surprising that the pharmaceutical industry is teaming up with Silicon Valley companies to develop wearable IT devices to monitor health. The details of a recent Google/Novartis deal were discussed in a recent article in the Financial Times (see: Big pharma teams up with big data). Below is an excerpt from it:
Big pharma and Silicon Valley have been circling one another for some time, looking for ways in which they might harness the power of data technology to medical ends. Now a fusion of West Coast entrepreneurship and lab-coated medical expertise has spawned its first big publicly announced transaction. Google has struck a deal with Novartis to develop a “smart” contact lens designed to help diabetics track their blood sugar levels. The lens works by analysing the level of glucose in a wearer’s tear fluid and communicating the data to a mobile device. It replaces the need for diabetics to test their own blood sugar several times a day....But this is only one of the reasons to applaud the marriage of pharma and big data, and the emergence of such “wearable” medical devices. The increasing incidence of chronic diseases and an ageing population has created the need for real-time health monitoring. At a time of stretched healthcare budgets, having a device that tracks the state of the wearer’s health can help to give physicians better early intelligence of problems, reducing the need for costly interventions and long hospital stays later on. Monitoring is, moreover, only part of the story. Wearable technology may also have a role to play in treating conditions. For instance, Novartis is also looking at using Google’s technology to produce an “autofocusing lens”....Another area of investigation is into so-called “electroceuticals”. These are implants that use electronic impulses to affect and modify the functions of the body.
I have no problem with wearable devices for monitoring health status. I think that this is both inevitable and useful for increasing health awareness among the general population if not to improve health. I am also enthusiastic about the notion of having healthcare consumers take more ownership of their own health status. Early autodiagnosis and ongoing health monitoring is certainly one way to reduce the cost of healthcare by avoiding the expense of nagging chronic diseases. Why then would I be concerned about pharmaceutical companies getting involved in the development of such devices? My greatest fear is that the companies will "fudge" these devices such that the diagnosis of various diseases and the need for treatment will be overstated. This will be an extension of the medicalization discussed in the first paragraph. One example of such chicanery was a rigged depression survey that Eli Lilly posted on the web. The company manufactures the anti-depressant Cymbalta. Regardless of how one answered the survey, the conclusion was that the subject may be depressed (see: Rigged Depression Survey on the Web Steers Readers to Lilly's Cymbalta).