You used to go see your primary care doctor for a physical once a year, attend your annual OB-GYN check-up, and that may have been the extent of what was considered preventive healthcare. That’s it — just 45 minutes or an hour of face time with your care providers to make sure your hormones, heart, lungs, and all your body’s other systems are running as they should.
Thankfully, things have evolved beyond that, especially with the telehealth boom during the height of the pandemic, and the influx of technological health devices and services that encourage at-home and proactive medical care. The goal is both to catch any health concerns before they turn into a bigger issue or to simply better understand your body’s chemistry.
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And though artificial intelligence (AI) is still an uncharted territory in many respects, including in the medical field, there are some developments, like an AI vocal analyzer, that could be a key factor in mental health diagnoses. Other preventive health technologies might feel a bit closer to home, like the Apple Watch’s ability to ensure your heart is in good condition. Below, we’ve outlined five of preventive care’s new frontiers that are leading the change, and how the health technology of the future is shaping up overall.
Preventive full-body MRI scans
Ever wondered if you could check out your entire body to make sure there was nothing wrong that a regular check-up wouldn’t catch? Full-body preventive MRIs have increasingly been made visible in the pop culture lexicon (Kris Jenner documented her use of one on an episode of The Kardashians, while Maria Menounos credits it for her pancreatic cancer diagnosis) and available to detect any issues early and thoroughly. Services like Ezra use upgraded MRI technology to take a closer, more detailed scan of 13 different organs, from the ovaries to the thyroid and pancreas, to ensure there is no development of cancer cells. Another start-up, Prenuvo, runs a comprehensive scan on whatever part of the body you choose: your head and torso, torso, or whole body, to test for a variety of conditions, including neurological markers of Multiple Sclerosis in the brain, bladder stones, uterine fibroids, and more.
If you believe that you have a family history or elevated risk of certain cancers or health conditions, a full-body MRI can be a comprehensive preventive tool. “The key advantage to using a full-body MRI is the ability to see early cancer throughout the body and not just in one area,” explains Dr. Dino Prato, Founder and CEO of Envita Medical Center. These tests also use different technology than typical MRIs and do not involve radiation, he says.
These super detailed MRIs, depending on the radiologist’s interpretation of some of the images, can in some cases result in a false positive, and that can add extra stress for the patient, says Dr. Prato. Not to mention, these types of scans are not yet covered by insurance and can cost a few thousand dollars. However, they may become more accessible for primary care doctors and radiologists to use in the future.
AI for medical diagnosis
First and foremost, let’s establish that at this time, AI is not going to take over for medical professionals or replace the one-on-one time you have with your care provider. What it can do is help your doctor get to the root cause of your symptoms more quickly. Using certain types of AI before a doctor’s appointment would work something like this: The service would send you secure text messages to ask you with standardized questions what symptoms you’re experiencing, and then forward on a number of suggestions of diagnoses based on clinical research to your doctor to examine.
Streamlining this process may not only support doctor’s offices in order for medical professionals to make better health decisions, but improve patient outcomes, says Dr. Michal Tzuchman Katz, CEO and Co-Founder at Kahun, a clinical support AI company. This could be a win-win for patients and for doctors. “They will have more time and resources to holistically examine the patient and focus on preventive care,” he says.
The AI-assisted diagnostic process may be additionally beneficial for mental health care. One company, Kintsugi, uses AI-powered voice software that can run in the background of telehealth calls or in-person clinical visits to catch changes in the voice that might indicate certain mental health conditions. For example, research has found that subtle changes in the pitch or volume of someone’s voice, or more trembling in the voice, can be signs of depression. The human ear might not even hear these subtleties though, so it’s up to the AI software to pick up on them and help a doctor make a more accurate diagnosis or refer someone to a psychiatrist.
Wearable devices for heart health
Between your iPhone or iPad, Apple Watch or other wearable device, you can track your steps, fitness, nutrition, and more. This isn’t super new. One more recent development is wearables’ ability to track certain biomarkers of heart health, as reported by the journal Nature.
For instance, when your Apple Watch wearable tracks your heart rate, it can also pick up signs of an irregular heartbeat. This could signify atrial fibrillation, or Afib, a condition that might cause heart palpitations and dizziness and might put you at greater risk for a stroke or other cardiovascular disease. In Apple’s Heart Health study, a small number of people had this issue, but 84 percent of people who had red flags of an irregular pulse ended up having a diagnosis of atrial fibrillation after following up with a doctor. This is an important development in the often unpredictable realm of cardiovascular health.
At-home tests for signs of aging
The world of at-home tests have blossomed, making it more convenient for you to get results for a variety of different conditions and biomarkers, and to access the appropriate treatment. One notable development in neurological care includes an at-home test for Alzheimer’s risk factors manufactured by Quest Diagnostics. You can pick it up without having to visit your doctor’s office — the blood test evaluates for proteins that could potentially indicate early Alzheimer’s. While early detection is important to potentially slow the progression of the disease, it may not be an absolute that the person will then develop Alzheimer’s, and the test is expensive.
The causes behind another sign of aging and hormonal changes, hair loss, can now be tested in the comfort of your own home. Roots by Genetic Arts just released a DNA test for people of all genders, who might be affected by genetic age-related hair loss or menopausal hair loss. The $210 test is a simple cheek swab, but it captures different results about your hair loss, which could be related to inflammation, poor circulation, changes in your hormones, and how the skin produces collagen, all of which can be genetically related. After you get your test results, the company will send you a personalized topical treatment to target your exact causes of hair loss for a subscription of $109 a month.
At-home tests for women’s health
Sometimes, in-office tests for reproductive and vaginal health can be uncomfortable, literally and otherwise. The option to take a test at home could be a game-changer. Enter “tampon gynecology” company Daye, which recently launched in the U.S. They’ve pioneered the At-Home Vaginal Microbiome Screening Kit, which involves a quick tampon insertion and then mailing in the tampon sample. The vaginal microbiome, or the normal balance of healthy bacteria in the vagina, can change during menopause, so this test can help you find your new normal and figure out whether or not you need probiotic supplements. Additionally, menopause symptoms like vaginal dryness can more easily cause vaginal infections like bacterial vaginosis (BV) and yeast infections, and the test can help spot those early so you can get treatment via their OB-GYN specialists right away.
Whether you’re in the stage of trying to conceive or moving toward perimenopause, an at-home AMH blood test from IHDLab can test your levels of Anti-Mullerian Hormone, or AMH, a marker of your ovarian reserve and how many healthy eggs you might have left, with the prick of a finger. Lower levels of AMH could be a sign that you’re closer to perimenopause, but IHDLab will analyze the results so that you have a clear idea for $99.
Technology is not a replacement for your physical
Just because you can access many forms of preventive care without stepping into your doctor’s office doesn’t mean you should preemptively cancel your yearly checkups. Some of the at-home tests can give you a better education on certain aspects of your health, so that you can go into your physician with questions prepared. The same goes for biomarkers of atrial fibrillation or Alzheimer’s that come up: Those can prompt you to make an appointment with a cardiologist or neurologist to get more information.
Once the initial tests are out of the way, you have more time to speak to your doctor about treatments and the path forward.
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