Are 'Smart' Toilets The Future Of Wellness Technology?
It's 2019, and you likely track your daily steps with your smartphone, monitor your heart rate with an Apple watch, and track your fitness goals on your Fitbit. If you're really into it, you might even track your sleep with an Oura Ring or check your food for the presence of allergens using a Nima Sensor.
In the last few years, technologies like the ones above have changed the way we think about health, allowing us to monitor our habits and behaviors with incredible precision. And now, a study suggests that a new type of health technology could turn everything upside down.
It's a toilet. And it can tell you more about your health than all the watches, bracelets, rings, and other "smart" devices combined.
What is a "smart toilet," and what can it tell you about your health?
A collaboration between scientists at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and the Morgridge Institute for Research, the small pilot study attempted to answer two key questions. First: Can regular monitoring of urine provide accurate information about an individual's health and how it changes over time? And second: If it can, is it possible to create simple, accurate, and affordable "smart toilets"?
The results of the study, published in Nature Digital Medicine, showed that when two research subjects collected all urine samples over a 10-day period and then submitted those samples for metabolic testing—while at the same time tracking their heart rates and steps, calorie consumption and sleep patterns—the urine samples provided a very specific picture of their real-time health status. The level of detail was impressive; the samples revealed when the subjects drank coffee or alcohol, what medications they took (plus, when they took them and how much), and even showed metabolic outputs from factors like exercise and sleep.
Are smart toilets the wellness trackers of the future?
The toilets essentially acted like personal lifestyle trackers. Next, the team plans to develop a toilet that can do these tests automatically. As Joshua Coon, one of the lead authors of the study (and also one of the two subjects in the pilot study), explained, "We know in the lab we can make these measurements...and we're pretty sure we can design a toilet that could sample urine." The real challenge, he says, is whether or not they can develop a smart toilet that's cheap enough to be used by the masses. "That's where this will either go far or not happen at all," he said. This could prove to be a big obstacle, as the machine (called a mass spectrometer) they used to analyze the urine costs upward of $300,000.
But if they could develop these toilets in a way that's replicable, it could change the way we track our health in a major way. It could be used to make sure the elderly are taking their prescription drugs properly, provide early warnings for bacterial and viral outbreaks, and be used to diagnose diseases earlier than we do now. Considering the fact that urine contains metabolic information that has been linked to more than 600 human conditions—including cancer, diabetes, and kidney disease—the possibilities are almost endless.
For now, though, we'll have to stick to our Fitbits and iPhones. And toilets will just be toilets.
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