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Digitized Lateral Flow Tests Can Transform How We Think About Patient Generated Health Data

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The following article is an opinion piece written by Phil Groom. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of Technology Networks.

Patients generate vast amounts of data. From their bodily functions to their lifestyle and habits, they are constantly producing information invaluable to health professionals. Traditionally, if a health professional wanted to access that data, to make more accurate diagnoses or better treatment plans, they would have to see the patient in person or speak to a family member or caregiver.

There, they would ask questions about their health, make observations, and perhaps perform a series of tests. Some patients, especially those with chronic conditions, might have kept a diary of their symptoms to keep their doctor informed between appointments, but they were few and far between.

Technology is transforming the patient-doctor dynamic

Now the days of the in-person health check-up could be numbered. Low-cost connected technology, such as smartphones and wearable devices, along with at-home diagnostic tests, are transforming the patient-doctor dynamic. Patients can now record, store and transmit their own health data without having to step foot in a doctor’s office.

As a result, the amount of patient generated health data (PGHD) has increased exponentially in recent years and will continue to grow as patients and health professionals adopt new technology.

The pandemic has sped up this process. When social distancing made in-person visits more complicated, patients and health professionals were forced to use technology to communicate. Like working from home, this could be the start of a sea change in the way healthcare is delivered.

Lateral flow is for life, not just for the pandemic

Another thing the pandemic did was familiarize people with the lateral flow test as a diagnostic tool. Millions of these point-of-care tests have been used across the world as an affordable, rapid and easy-to-use alternative to laboratory testing for COVID-19.

Lateral flow antigen tests have been used to screen asymptomatic people for the virus, while lateral flow antibody tests have been used to gauge levels of immunity. What they haven’t been used for, however, is to gather patient data, at least not in a large scale and systematic way.

Many over-the-counter tests come with instructions for the person testing to report their result by calling their health practitioner. Or, as is the case with free government-provided lateral flow tests, to self-report results on a government website.

Both these scenarios could result in a time lag or in not reporting at all, because digital data capture is not integrated at the point of testing, and because reporting solutions were built by inexperienced providers and lack sophistication, security and ease of use.

If the data from these lateral flow tests had been captured at the point of use, stored, and analyzed, the pandemic could have been the largest exercise in PGHD gathering in history. We need to incentivize users to capture their test results and other data, and reassure them that their data is anonymized and protected.

How much valuable data, and therefore insight into the pandemic, was lost because it wasn’t captured from these tests? This must change. 

Much of the discussion around the future of PGHD has focused on new and emerging  health technologies, including connected implants, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But, post-pandemic, digitally connected lateral flow tests can become an integral part of the shift towards greater use of PGHD.

The potential of lateral flow has yet to be fully realized

The first challenge is to look beyond their use in COVID-19 and realize the potential of lateral flow to become a part of daily life. As well as home pregnancy and fertility tests, patients can already test themselves for sexually transmitted diseases, or for high levels of cholesterol, or for cardiac markers that might indicate heart disease. New uses for lateral flow tests are found every year.

We are most familiar with the qualitative versions of the tests – such as positive/negative with COVID-19 tests or pregnant/not pregnant with home pregnancy tests – but some tests when combined with an optical reader can provide quantitative results. Some tests can even be multiplexed, meaning multiple tests for different conditions on the same assay.

When connected to a device like a smartphone via an app, these tests can be transformed into powerful data-gathering devices. Patients can enter their personal data along with other symptoms into the app and securely upload it along with their test results to the cloud. There, the data can be accessed by their doctor using a secure dashboard and used to make more holistic judgments – better data leading to better health outcomes.

It’s time for the industry to act

From infectious diseases to lifestyle applications, lateral flow tests can capture valuable data and help put patients in charge of their own healthcare. It’s not enough to talk about this as a possibility – the lateral flow industry must start making itself part of the conversation around the future of PGHD. Test developers and manufacturers should stop thinking of and marketing their tests as a "throwaway" technology and instead realise the potential they have to become a powerful part of the data-driven healthcare technology revolution.