Are you ready for your fridge to nag you about eating too much ice cream…or your shirt to tell you if you’re running a fever…or your bra to let you know if it’s time to get a mammogram?

This isn’t science fiction. It’s the ever-increasing internet of things – a massively interconnected assembly of hardware and software that may help us take better care of the human wetware we carry around with us every minute. According to a study by the research firm, Gartner, there will be as many as 30 billion devices connected to the Internet of things by 2020, which will add nearly $2 trillion to the global economy.

The deluge of information that we’ll soon be receiving about our own health will put stresses on our ability to make sense of it all – and provide new opportunities for health communications, as well as new challenges for medicine and policy.

If you have a T-shirt that tells you if you’re feverish or a bra to detect breast cancer, it’s a short step to coupling that information with a recommendation on the kind of drugs you should take or the tests you should consider. Whether people are really ready to take medical advice from their clothing remains to be seen, but a few years ago, who would have thought that one of the leading sources of medical information in America would be “Dr. Google?”

The new dynamic of the Internet of things further demolishes the traditional relationship between doctor and patient – once based on the vast asymmetry of knowledge and understanding between the two. Already, patients come to medical appointments armed with the latest information from the web, and they will increasingly supplement that source with real-time data from a host of biosensors. Of course, data is not the same as understanding, and this new landscape offers as much scope for misinformation as for genuine knowledge.

As with any new frontier, the pioneers in this new information space will be able to stake their claims to the new territory of communications. Those who seize the opportunity to integrate into the Internet of things to provide health communication could reap enormous rewards. Rather than communicating to a whole population to reach the few people at risk for a disease, messages can be targeted to those whose individual data indicates a specific illness.

The real beneficiaries from health messaging in the Internet of things are likely to be pharmaceutical companies providing information on products linked to physiological data. When your fridge nags you about reaching for the ice cream once too often, it could provide you with information on the newest diet pill. When biosensors detect increased risk of heart disease, they could suggest speaking to your doctor about specific treatments. Alternately, these new interlinked devices may not themselves be the messengers in this new world of health communication, but may instead create additional data pools that healthcare companies can mine for further information about the disorders which people may have or for which they may be at risk. For example, pill bottles or even medicine cabinets may have automatic sensors to detect when they have remained unopened too long, relaying that information to a pharmacy or drug company so that patients can be reminded to take their medicines.

What are the implications of this revolution for communications?

Not so long ago, there was a rigid division between the moments in which you received health information and the rest of ordinary life. You got formal health information from a doctor – which happened only in an office – or through publications or transmissions from health care companies delivered through channels that required significant production resources: print, radio or television.

Now, of course, such health information is more pervasive and has a much lower production cost, being presented via Internet, mobile apps, and through social media. This trend toward information diffusion has changed the information itself, which has become more constant, more fluid, more informal, and more bite-sized.

The increased connectivity of even the most inert-seeming objects will further accelerate these trends, driving health information to become even more fluid and compact, perhaps almost becoming part of the background of information we absorb subliminally.

As communicators in healthcare, we need to anticipate this trend, and be ready with more fluid, more nimble, more pervasive communications strategies that can adapt to a world where barriers between what is the physical environment and what is a communications medium have all but disappeared.

That future is one that may exacerbate our feelings of being overloaded with information, and it will almost certainly cause sleepless nights for regulators and corporate legal departments, trying to work out what is and is not permissible promotion, but it is a future that is inevitably coming – and coming soon. The key is to be ready for it – and to have winning strategies prepared before competitors know it’s coming.

David Bowen, Global Healthcare Practice Leader

Hot on the heels of Vikki Chowney returning from the hub of innovation, inspiration and creativity that is SXSW, the H+K Strategies UK's Apple a Day team have been avidly following the discussions around citizen health.

The subject that particularly peaked our interests and perked up our ears was the #DecodingMe panel which saw Sam De Brouwer, Linda Avey, Jessica Richman, and Alan Greene MD debate the growing role of tech in changing the face of healthcare. The discussion widely focused upon people starting to monitor and track their own health to enable a better and more effective conversation with doctors based upon a collection of their personal data. It’s no secret that apps are launching to help us track everything from our quality of sleep and calorie intake to the iWatch which will alert a user if they have been inactive for too long, but only now are we really starting to question how this data can be captured and aggregated to give doctors a more complete picture of an individual’s health.

Collaborative initiatives such as Quantified Self have sprung up to address this need and aim to help people get meaning out of their personal data by arranging international conferences and producing online content to simplify the process. However, the conversation at SXSW seemed to view this as just the first step in a long journey, with Linda Avey suggesting that personal data from patients with the same diagnosis could be used to inform and redefine subgroups of disease for more specialised treatment programmes to be developed.

With technological advances being made in the world of citizen health, the issue of finance will inevitably always be raised, but as Dr Greene commented, those who ‘take health into their own hands’ cost 31% less to treat. This was reinforced by a 2015 study by Health Affairs[1] which showed that active, involved patients actually have lower healthcare costs. This makes us think that if we take more individual responsibility for monitoring our own health, we could play a larger part in reducing the financial burden on the healthcare system as well as identifying any change in our health more easily. This can go further if that data was then accumulated and used to provide information on how different patients respond to pharmaceutical drugs.

Companies such as ‘23 and me’ are already compiling this information on a widespread basis with over 900,000 people in their database for whom they generate individual genetic reports which can include how they may respond to certain medications. This data can be used not just for those with chronic diseases, it can also help everyone place higher importance on preventative measures.

This is most definitely a subject that Apple a Day will be keeping a keen eye on as more and more tech innovations become more accessible to the everyday consumer, hopefully we will see an increased responsibility for individual health. If you would like to see some of the social pickup from the event then you can see Vikki’s storify here. For more information on some of the other Healthcare and technology trends to come out of SXSW, take a look at Vikki’s blog on the Medtech Top 5 at SxSW 2015.

H+K Strategies London healthcare team

Greene, J et al, When Patient Activation Levels Change, Health Outcomes And Costs Change, Too, Health Aff March 2015 vol. 34 no. 3431-437