In the wake of the merciless pandemic, preventive and predictive healthcare has rightly become the norm. Healthcare systems have undergone a complete overhaul in the past few years, moving the focus from illness to wellness. In a highly connected world, with the ubiquity of affordable portable devices and the internet, individuals are increasingly aware of the control that they can exercise over their own physical and mental well-being.
The concept of the internet of bodies (IoB) may cause more apprehension than a willingness to adopt. However, most people are unaware that they are already part of this ecosystem, a network of devices connecting an individual to technology capable of collecting personal information or altering physical functions. IoB devices may be invasive, that is implantable, injectable, or ingestible, or non-invasive, such as wearable devices. They are not always used to bring about health or medical benefits, but may be simply for convenience at work, allowing access to premises, facilities and so on.
IoB devices drive efficient clinical decision support systems, lifestyle medicine, and reduced healthcare expenditure. Where caregivers can determine that there is a cause for worry from a simple push notification indicating issues with patients, and then overcome the situation by prescribing drugs, they can avoid admissions to emergency departments. The large-scale collection of health data through IoB devices can help identify health trends across larger demographics and geographical areas and deliver better public health.
For body-incorporated IoB devices with brain-computer interfaces, brain signals can be converted into physical movement to improve the quality of life of differently-abled individuals.
The convergence of healthcare and technology raises concerns around the legal and ethical consequences of the use and possible abuse of connected humans and systems. With increasing awareness of rights to privacy, the volume of data that will be generated, processed, and retained in delivering such services leads to questions over the effectiveness of data protection law. Privacy concerns also lead to ethical concerns over how the sanctity of the person, the rights of an individual over their own body can be displaced in situations such as parents taking care of children and insurers when processing claims. It is impossible at the moment to envisage all such cases, but none of the concerns can be summarily rejected.
As with every new technology using artificial intelligence and machine learning, this ecosystem faces competing interests. However, it is essential that those using IoB devices have been fully informed of their shortcomings, as well as of their benefits. A patient should be made aware that a pacemaker, which has an external trigger, can bring about catastrophic consequences if tampered with.
Changing times have already led to changing law enforcement procedures. The Ohio police department in the USA relied upon a person’s heart rate records, recovered from their pacemaker, to charge them with arson and insurance fraud. It is not stretching the imagination to envisage that warrants may be obtained by law enforcement agencies to investigate women who keep track of their menstrual cycles through apps on smart devices, especially with the movement against abortion rights in some states of the USA.
IoB devices have the potential to expand healthcare beyond hospitals and clinics and into everyday life, but also to cause actual bodily harm. This complex interface requires urgent regulatory attention, so that standards may be adopted for hardware, software, manufacturing and production, and for the provision of adequate information and guidance to end users over use cases, hazards and benefits. Increasingly automated and synchronous and asynchronous remote delivery of healthcare to the consumer is revolutionising the manner in which all of us, as recipients and providers of healthcare, work with, adopt, and adapt to these solutions. Uncontrolled sector growth is not the best outcome and will require considerable intervention at an early stage. Imagination is a good servant, but a poor master; the simplest approach to a complex problem is always the one most likely to succeed.
Bagmisikha Puhan is an associate partner and Siddhant Gupta is an associate at TMT Law Practice.
TMT Law Practice
adjacent to Aurobindo Market
New Delhi-110 016, India
Tel: +91 (11) 26512813
+91 (11) 41682996