Medical apps, wearable devices and tribal medicine

Dan Formosa

There’s a significant difference between Eastern and Western medicine. Simply put, Eastern medicine, and Traditional Medicine treats the entire body, considering the individual as a whole. Western medicine treats the body as a collection of parts, one organ at a time. While fundamentally different, digital technology in healthcare offers the potential to merge Eastern and Western medicine. The result will be a holistic approach that can ultimately become an evidenced-based version of Traditional Medicine.

A significant portion of the world’s population relies on Traditional Medicine (TM). The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that TM is practiced in virtually every country in the world. For many people, it is the only affordable treatment available – and for some it’s the only treatment available at all. Africa contains one TM healer for every 500 people, far ahead of their ratio of medical doctors at 1 for every 40,000. TM healers are much more accessible. WHO released their 10-year plan in 2013, WHO Traditional Medicine Strategy: 2014-2023, discussing its practice and encouraging an East/West fusion, as an evidence-based approach to TM. (Note that TM, which can also stand for Tribal Medicine, is also sometimes abbreviated TCM for Traditional Chinese Medicine, or T&CM for Traditional and Complimentary Medicine).

Traditional Medicine encompasses a wide range of practices rooted in various cultures around the world while Western medicine relies on scientific research. Yearly spending in the US on medical research hovers around $120 billion, just under half the amount spent globally. Medical professionals and researchers generally focus on a specific body part or disease, which leads to a great degree of specialization. There’s one doctor for this problem, one for that and, while one doctor may refer a patient to another, they don’t often have time to confer with each other.

In contrast, TM practitioners will look for systemic signs of a health problem in seemingly unrelated places in the body. In a recent visit to a TM clinic in the Philippines, the center of my tongue showed signs of stress (with the advice to stop working so much!). A squeeze of the base of my thumb held clues to the health of my kidneys and liver. Acupuncture needles were later placed in what to me were many unassociated locations, although to be fair, I only requested treatment to see if it would correct a jetlag induced, general lull in energy. The result was that I felt great. However, these traditional practices have historically been ignored in Western medicine and when I brought this up with my general practitioner in the US, he just gave a shrug. Perhaps this is because TM is based on thousands of years of experience, but not much scientific evidence.

That said, the prevalence of TM and the fact that it produces results has been prompting a merging of Western and Eastern approaches. For instance, scientific studies are being conducted to gather data related to TM techniques, and herbal remedies continue to be chemically analyzed and explored. A key to scientific research is the ability to replicate a cause-and-effect, and we’re seeing that those efforts are underway. The Wall Street Journal reports, multiple universities in China, Europe and the US are linking Eastern and Western approaches, studying the body as a whole using research-based techniques.

Meanwhile we are sending, and will continue to send at an exponentially increasing rate, untold terabytes of health and medical data, fitness tracking information, food intake records, sleep patterns and more to the cloud. Each data stream sent from an app or device is by itself relatively narrow in focus. However, if properly combined and analyzed, they collectively have the power to extend our understanding of health and medicine. Currently, health information databases are not linked or being analyzed holistically – but this will change. Eventually, it will affect the way medical researchers conduct research by dramatically reducing cost while increasing the number of investigations undertaken. Medical advances won’t necessarily require new studies, they can result from analyses of the data that’s already been collected but not yet cross-referenced.

The use of wearable technologies and apps will eventually allow us to understand interrelations of various behaviors and lifestyles, physical and physiological signals, and cultural and ethnic influences, based on a culmination of data coming from all parts of our bodies. The result will be a holistic approach, considering many different aspects of the body together as one. Eastern-like, our techy apps and devices will return us to a form of medical practice that dates back several thousand years. Literally predating science.

An evidence-based approach will accelerate worldwide knowledge of TM. For instance, healing methods that used to take hundreds of years to discover may now take just a few years. But that does not mean everyone will need to be cloud-connected. Knowledge gained from a fraction of the world’s population, using information gathered and analyzed by apps and wearable technologies, will benefit people globally.

As we often see, future communities will form around the use of apps and wearable devices, which continue to form tribes. These digitally connected tribes will enhance knowledge of how our bodies work and the opportunity to heal will exist in the massive databases we are creating. Our new tribal healers will be computer connected, searching for elusive patterns in the masses of collected data that can help us all.

And although I haven’t yet found an app or a device designed to look at my tongue or take readings by squeezing the base of my thumb, with the huge number of devices being introduced to probe our bodies everywhere and ever-emerging innovations in sensor technologies, their introduction wouldn’t surprise me.



“WHO traditional medicine strategy: 2014-2023,” World Health Organization 2013

“A Push to Back Traditional Chinese Medicine With More Data,” WSJ, Nov 2 2014