‘Smart’ toilets would be a huge boon to public health: Commentary

One of the major roadblocks for wearables is a drop-off in engagement. It quickly becomes cumbersome for people to charge a device, log data, and remember to carry a wearable around all day. But toilets are used every day and conveniently allow for passive and continuous monitoring of personal health data.

For physicians, even basic data on stool and urine would be very valuable in the hospital setting.

Doctors ask patients questions about their bowel movements and other details (consistency, color, blood, and so on). We currently rely a lot on anecdotal information from patients or nurses, which seems bizarre in a world where other data is objectively collected with technology. Making matters more complicated, patients frequently can’t remember whether they had a bowel movement.

But the number of times a patient uses the toilet each day is also clinically important when assessing whether they’re getting any better from a gut health perspective. Elderly patients with dementia frequently go days without a bowel movement, putting them at risk for intestinal perforation and severe infection. Most hospitals use a device connected to the urinary catheter for real-time objective measurement for urine volume and temperature, but nothing similar exists for their stool.

Besides urine and stool analysis, the potential uses of smart toilet analysis are almost limitless. They are the ideal place to capture metrics for daily measurement like blood pressure, body fat, and weight without adding work for the patient. And I see a lot of potential in measuring hormone fluctuation with menstrual cycles for family planning, or skin-sensing electrocardiograms. Alphabet has even filed patents in 2015 for pressure-sensing toilet seats to measure blood pressure.

I also see patients using a “smart toilet” to take better control of their own health and well-being, including their diet, if one were made available. And studies have found that they’re getting more comfortable with the idea.

A survey from the research firm Accenture reported that nine out of ten people are willing to share wearable health data with their physician. And consumer adoption of wearable health technology is increasing exponentially, and has nearly doubled in the last two years from 21 percent in 2016 to 33 percent this year. The vast majority of patients surveyed in the study felt that wearable health devices improved the understanding of their condition, their quality of care and it helped them communicate with their physician.

But I do have one note of caution. As with any health device with remote-monitoring, there is a risk of triggering false alarms or over-diagnoses which could lead to unnecessary workups and increased costs. The answer to that conundrum is prospective research studies to validate the technology and prove that its use helps patients and physicians achieve the health outcomes they find important.

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