The quantified-self movement – using gadgets to measure and track different health related indicators – has, until now, mainly been the preserve of the relatively few. It is on the way to becoming a tool for the many, with an important role to play in the management of chronic diseases and health related behaviour change. And a global market worth an estimated $26 billion by 2017.
Ease of use and integrated data will enable greater uptake, more understandable information and encourage effective self management of lifestyle related health issues and chronic conditions. The shift to prevention will also bring a radical change in health technology eco-systems.
What is changing?
With the growth of smart phones, health apps in general have been downloaded in their millions the world over; an estimated 44 million in 2012. Gadgets such as FitBit, Fuelband, and Jawbone’s Up and associated apps have provided health and fitness enthusiasts with statistics on speed, distance, heart rate, calories used, sleep patterns – and many more indicators, as part of their fitness regimes, for some time now. Gadgets and app downloads are both set to grow, with a combined market value of $26 billion predicted by 2017.
Whereas at the moment the gadgets and the Apps tend to be either consumer or doctor focused, and to provide streams of isolated data, the next generation will begin to integrate and aggregate data in new ways- on personal dashboards and across different apps and platforms, and help consumers understand what they should do as a result of the information. Consumers will be able to see more easily how different parts of their lives affect health to encourage them – e.g. to give up smoking by seeing the health improvements. One, TicTrac, will enable companies to sponsor projects which provided targeted information and support – so a nappy company might provide support on coping with a new-born baby and a sports equipment company on performance. Doctors may be able to pre-empt chronic conditions turning into crisis episodes, with systems such as Asthmapolis, for asthma sufferers and Glooka, for diabetics- both recently approved by the US Food and Drugs Administration.
The next generation is bio-sensing clothing, and companies are already developing clothes which monitor physical activity, ECG data, and breathing patterns. Again, in addition to raw bio data, some combine information to indicate tension levels or emotional states, and suggest actions for how to respond.
Why is this important?
Health budgets are under pressure, in particular because managing chronic conditions is becoming an ever greater part of health care. For example, in the US alone there are some 26 million people living with asthma, whose total treatment – including lost work time – costs an average of $3000 per annum. As technology becomes easier to use we will see doctors prescribing apps as a means to enable self-care, improve prevention and reduce costs for any number of conditions. Doctors and patients may be able to pick up signs of impending problems earlier and reduce heart failure, heart attacks or strokes – or so it is hoped with the iPhone heart monitor, AliveCor.
While uptake among those currently aged over 70 may be slow, among younger generations it is likely to be far quicker because of existing digital lifestyle habits – such as greater willingness to share information, higher smart phone ownership levels and more widespread recognition of lifestyle factors in health.
These new technologies will provide a major opportunity to redefine health care from treatment to prevention, bring in new suppliers and challenge existing ones. Food companies and retailers may also find that information on packaging, e.g. QR codes about ingredients etc., begins to influence buying patterns more, and provide an opportunity for even more personalised promotions. They could also become part of group challenges and gamification strategies between brands, stores or communities – as part of wider healthy lifestyle promotion.
But privacy will become a growing concern. Companies are already using publicly available information to screen health insurance applications for lifestyle related data which may disprove claims or indicate risks; employers likewise are checking out prospective employees. More detailed information will mean greater potential relevance. While providers promise anonymity, leaks happen; and at present most Quantified Self data terms and conditions apparently include data sharing agreements.
Research into how effective such systems are is still emerging and is necessary, but the indications are that it works. One woman diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome decided to monitor almost every aspect of her life in order to reduce symptoms; one correlation to emerge was that when she was actively monitoring her behaviour changed. We may be seeing the emergence of quantification leading to awareness then mindfulness then genuine behaviour change. Only time, many more gadgets and much more data will tell.