The self-monitoring trend has exploded into a plethora of shiny new gadgets and toys – but what are the health benefits, and will the appeal last or will we sink under mountains of data?
Judging from the abundance of news stories, it seems we are getting serious about self-monitoring, and tracking everything from what we eat, to how active and happy we are.
The quiet revolution in self-tracking has turned into an explosion, mirroring the large-scale liberation of data being promoted by organizations like the Health Data Consortium who wish to increase the pace and volume of data available to innovators so they can devise products and services to improve health and health care.
Self-monitoring or self-tracking is where individuals use intelligent tools like wearable sensors and mobile apps to collect, process and display a wealth of personal data to help them monitor and manage all aspects of their personal health.
More self-monitoring devices, more people using them
Spurred by movements such as the Quantified Self, an increasing number of people are using personal gadgets to monitor their own fitness and health indicators, plus how they use their time, in order to improve wellbeing and personal efficiency
Instant feedback is a great motivator
There is an old saying in management, if you want to improve something, start by measuring it, or you won’t see how to make a difference.
The added appeal of today’s self-tracking tools is that seeing the numbers so soon can be motivational: they reward you when you do well and they spur you to do something when you feel lazy.
If you want to lose weight for example, it can be hard to stay motivated. You may decide part of the strategy is to do more walking. But you won’t lose weight overnight. What helps you stay motivated is seeing the instant feedback that something like a pedometer or activity monitor gives you. It keeps you going long enough to see the hard results when you step on those scales
Big shake-up in medicine
The trend in self-tracking being brought about by what is possible with today’s technology, heralds “the biggest shake-up in the history of medicine,” according to Eric Topol, a leading American physician.
Topol believes the growth of self-tracking devices is bringing us to a turning point in medicine.
He doesn’t prescribe drugs for his patients, he told the BBC, instead he prescribes apps.
“You name the condition, we get the apps to match up with your phone,” he says.
Mobile phones with apps
Could an app a day keep the Doctor away?
However, while the growing trend in self-tracking is being embraced with enthusiasm by users and doctors alike, there is also concern that focusing on the wrong data, or using a poorly designed monitoring tool, can cause people to make their health worse or get into problems that then have to be picked up by health professionals.
Another area of concern is regulation. Some apps and devices should be classed as medical devices. The US Food and Drug Administration recently told a company they should seek regulatory approval of their mobile app that analyzes urine from photographs.
Lionel Tarassenko, professor at the University of Oxford and director at Oxehealth, a spin-off from the university’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering, is one of the UK’s pioneers in biomedical engineering. He has been collecting clinically based evidence on self-monitoring.
The technology Prof Tarassenko has developed “will allow early signs of deterioration to be detected and addressed in a timely and efficient manner,” he says, so that:
“The worried-well would stop bothering busy clinicians; the ill would access a clinician when there was still time to treat the condition.”
What happens when the novelty wears off?
The play value of shiny new gadgets appeals to the child within us. But what happens when the novelty wears off and you are left with the stark realization that to achieve your goal of improved health you have to keep doing something that might now feel rather boring?
In a recent informal experiment reported by the BBC, scientist and presenter Dr Kevin Fong joined three women to see how three weeks of measuring sleep and activity levels would affect them.
One of the effects he noticed was the feeling of competition, not only with other participants but also within himself. All participants increased their activity levels, to the point where, as one woman explained, she ended up running on the spot while watching TV just to get her activity numbers up.
But a question that arises is how long does this effect last?
According to the Pew Internet Research report, only 46% of people who tracked at least one measure said it changed their overall approach to maintaining their health. This is a surprisingly low figure.
Will the woman in the BBC-reported experiment still be running on the spot while watching TV when the media spotlight is turned off? Or is the value of the self-tracking tool more one of raising awareness – in that it highlights the types of changes needed to make a significant difference to your life?