For several years now, the Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA) has maintained the same theme for World Asthma Day: “You Can Control Your Asthma”. It is an empowering message for people living with asthma, one of Europe’s major chronic diseases affecting 30 million citizens, of which 6 million live with severe asthma symptoms.
Asthma is a demanding disease and its control remains a challenge for many patients. It requires discipline to properly follow treatment; flexibility to cope with the disease and its symptoms; and proper education to know the right things to do when facing an asthma attack. But how can we ask a child with asthma to have such a degree of self-awareness at such a young age?
At EFA – the European Federation of Allergy and Airways Diseases Patients’ Associations – we have conducted a new research on the factors driving adherence to treatment among young people with asthma from 12-17 years old. Surprisingly, many of the patients we interviewed said they do not follow their asthma treatment because sometimes they forget their medication. Others rebel against medical advice or skip their treatment as a reward when they feel better. These behaviors on a continued basis impact asthma control and health status. The good news, however, is that young people with asthma trust their doctors and this trust can be built upon.
I think the application of technologies to the self-management of respiratory diseases like asthma is our best option to help young patients cope with and take charge of their disease. I am involved through EFA in myAirCoach, an EU-funded project, where a group of healthcare professionals, researchers, engineers, medical devices companies and volunteering patients is developing an mHealth tool to help people living with asthma predict the progression of their disease.
To me, mHealth tools and devices -such as apps or wearables- do have the potential to empower patients. In the case of children and teenagers, these solutions can help support them take responsibility for their health through systems tailored to their symptoms, age, and use, and to tackle some of the behavioral aspects that impact adherence to treatment, such as forgetfulness. The technology that can be developed today can enable patients be central actors of their health and meet patients’ rights, like access to health records anytime, something which can still be challenging to obtain.
However, every time I talk to patients about technology applied to health I feel certain mHealth fatigue. Many have used or are trying health management apps whose usefulness for them, the patients, is unclear. Patients also have significant concerns about safety, security, privacy, and ethics yet to be addressed. Not to mention that a clear regulatory framework is still lacking. This is slowing our progression towards more digital health, a new era that could help social security systems save money and simplify care.
To me, technological solutions, like the future myAirCoach, being developed with patients, can make a difference in the daily lives of people with asthma – and therefore bring benefits to the healthcare sector. If we keep in mind that all these tools are to support the person, and not to treat the disease, we can walk half of the way towards asthma control.