Time for a toilet break?

By Francine Barsam
Posted on 17 August 2018

As we share more and more aspects of our lives on social media, going to the loo is one of the few things that still remains private.

But it appears even this area of privacy isn’t immune from the creeping spread of our connected world. As The Times recently reported, the toilet is the latest household item to go ‘smart’.

A team from the University of Cambridge, led by Professor Jeremy Baumberg, demonstrated a prototype smart toilet at the Royal Society’s summer science exhibition. The machine collects molecules from a person’s urine by passing the liquid through a device with gold or silver nanoparticles inside. It then analyses what it’s collected, with the help of laser beams, and sends its findings to the person’s computer or smartphone. The results can show whether the person is showing signs of ill health, and can be available to read in as little time as it takes them to wash their hands afterwards.

Transforming personal healthcare – and saving the NHS money

If it catches on, the smart toilet concept could empower patients to take more control over their health by spotting signs of trouble earlier. With the rise in obesity rates, smart toilets could enable us all to spot the early warning signs of diabetes and take action, where possible. And that’s just one condition. Add in all the others that can be detected using urine samples, and the potential to improve the nation’s health is enormous.

This could lead to substantial savings for the NHS. By alerting us to conditions earlier, there may be situations where we can take action without needing to see a GP or other health professional, thereby saving enormous amounts of these highly skilled professionals’ time. This could instead be used to focus on preventative medicine.

Disrupting other industries

Smart toilets could also disrupt parts of the personal healthcare industry. Pregnancy tests and ovulation sticks, for example, could become a thing of the past, replaced by a more convenient and discreet screening option. There’s also the environmental benefit, because we won’t be sending as many of these items to landfill.

The data risks

However, as is so often the case with connected healthcare devices, the smart loo concept brings risks.

How accurate would the diagnoses be? Would there be too many false alarms, leading to unnecessary worry on the patient’s part?

Then there’s the question about data ownership and access control. The data a smart toilet would be collecting is personal and highly sensitive, and would be of enormous interest (and commercial value) to a variety of organisations. Who actually owns the data? If it’s the toilet maker, who controls or regulates what they can do with it?

Imagine, for example, the toilet detects possible signs of diabetes, and automatically informs your health or life insurance provider, who increase your premiums without notifying you. What if this ‘diagnosis’ then turned out to be a false alarm?

A delicate balancing act

These questions highlight just a few of the very complex issues that connecting up this very private part of our lives would raise. That said, if this delicate landscape could be navigated with the right sensitivity and rigour, the potential benefits to our health and the country’s National Health Service, are huge.

Now, time for a toilet break.