Like many of my geezer peers, I’ve been credibly accused of rowing upstream against the digital currents of the past 20 years. I avoid social-media sites, prefer real books over Kindles, and occasionally even lament abandoning our landline. My Luddite tendencies, however, really burst forth when confronted by medical technology. When my audiologist a few years back confirmed the degree of hearing loss in my left ear prior to prescribing hearing aids, for example, she suggested I crawl inside their MRI machine to determine if a tumor could be the cause. I told her I’d rather house a tumor in my brain than spend an hour trapped inside that rattling tube.
I realize that healthcare practitioners just want to help. It’s their job to consider every possibility, track every metric, and recommend a course of action. And there are seemingly no limits to what technology can now reveal in the pursuit of a diagnosis and treatment. Sometimes, however, medical gadgetry can overrule common sense.
Suppose, for example, you’ve recently returned home from the hospital to recuperate from a heart attack, and your doctor recommends that you install a toilet seat that monitors your heart rate, blood pressure, weight, and other markers of cardiac functionality every time you relieve yourself from a sitting position. And imagine tending to your business there while the computer in the seat analyzes the data and alerts your cardiologist when the numbers dribble outside the normal range. I’m sure this is not how events would proceed, but I can’t help wondering whether an ambulance would show up at the front door before I’ve finished answering nature’s call.
This “smart” toilet seat is not just a pipe dream. Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology have developed a prototype, are actively studying its efficacy, and plan to seek FDA approval. Nicholas Conn, PhD, and his team are pitching it as a cost-effective alternative to hospital readmissions. The way they figure it, the alerts dispatched during your bathroom visits could trigger a phone call from your doctor, who may recommend that you adjust your medication or simply come in for a checkup — all in the interest of keeping you out of the hospital. I suppose this could save lives, but Conn is selling this more as a cost-saving than a life-saving proposition. Sending every heart-attack victim home with a tell-all toilet seat would cost the hospital less, he argues, than incurring readmission penalties.
“Typically, within 30 days of hospital discharge, 25 percent of patients with congestive heart failure are readmitted,” Conn noted in a statement. “After 90 days of hospital discharge, 45 percent of patients are readmitted. And the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is penalizing hospitals for readmitting patients for heart failure.”
From an actuarial perspective, I suppose this makes a lot of sense, but it’s not hard to imagine some operational challenges. In my house, for instance, My Lovely Wife and I (and occasional visitors) share a single bathroom. So, if I return from the hospital with my own special toilet seat, it seems we could be spending a lot of time installing and uninstalling the fancy version while holding off nature’s call. I have to assume Conn and his team have considered this. Maybe there’s an on-off switch, or maybe it works with a kind of touch-ID, like on my phone. That would be cool, sort of.
But I could imagine there might be times when I’m really not keen on sharing my heart rate, blood pressure, and weight with some hospital bot. Maybe I’d rather not divulge just how often I’m visiting the toilet on a particular day. Maybe the idea that I’m divulging my blood pressure would spike my blood pressure. Data is always open to interpretation, after all. And sometimes it’s better not to know what’s going on in there.