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The intersection of the quantified self movement and big data

Self-tracking gadgets may still be somewhat of a novelty, but people who use them will also want to share this information with their physicians.

These days, a growing number of people are wearing self-tracking gadgets that monitor and track their daily fitness levels. The quantified self movement has taken a leap as more fitness monitors have emerged on the market.

Although these self-tracking gadgets may still be somewhat of a novelty, there is no doubt that we will see a rapid proliferation of people wearing or using some type of digital tool that monitors their daily activity.

Like how consumers and physicians both drove the iPad and smartphones into clinical care, people involved in the quantified self movement will also want to share this information with their physicians and healthcare providers. That way they can receive better, more personalized care that is based on their health conditions, diet and level of physical activity.

What began with just a few devices like the Fitbit and the Nike+ FuelBand has exploded with new and innovative gadgets like the waterproof Misfit Wearables Shine or the Motorola Motoactv that has a Global Positioning System tracker and heart rate monitor.

Rumors are circulating about a new Apple iWatch, which may incorporate some element of fitness tracking and become part of the Apple ecosystem of mobile apps and devices. Samsung, LG and others are also working on smart watches that will likely include some fitness component.

Patient reporting before the quantified self movement

Traditionally, doctors and nurses have used patient-recorded data for the management of certain medical conditions:

  • Diabetics would record their blood sugar levels in a notebook and bring those records to their office visits; digital glucometers that sync with computers led to digital glucose charts that patients could share with their healthcare providers and receive tailored guidance on their diabetes management.
  • Asthmatics record their breathing ability through a peak flow meter and record that data in a notebook.
  • Migraine headache logs have also become digitized in the era of smartphones and tablets.
In the next decade, patient-generated big data will yield clinically meaningful information.

All this information is helpful for guiding the clinician in patient care. Now, the medical field is about to see a surge of user-generated health data from these fitness gadgets.

What will doctors do with all this data? Most doctors won't do anything with it. They probably won't add it to patients' electronic health records. After all, they don't have the time or the means to review and interpret so much fitness data. If healthy patients are exercising for approximately 30 minutes each day, they're probably staying fit as long as they're also eating right.

Too much exercise can be hazardous, and some patients who have certain medical conditions will need to take it easy on the treadmill. Doctors don't want to be blamed if patients exercise too much and get hurt. Doctors also don't want to be liable if self-tracking gadgets start revealing strange, erratic exercise patterns that may be suggestive of overexertion. In short, doctors want to avoid any potential liability related to data that patients may generate with a self-tracking fitness gadget.

What quantified self data is worth now -- and what it will be worth later

So, what will patients do with all this self-tracking fitness data? Some will use their own data to get more motivated to live a healthier lifestyle. The premise of the quantified self movement is to generate sustainable behavior change. There is also a layer of social accountability, since most users share their fitness activity data with an online social community where they compete for points, bragging rights, badges and other types of motivational incentives.

These fitness gadgets can be clinically useful tools to help patients lose weight and remain physically active. They can also help patients be more self-reflective about their own health and overall wellness.

Medical professionals who provide weight loss services have started using fitness gadgets as a way to keep their patients motivated to exercise. Physicians in physical medicine and rehabilitation have also started implementing these digital tools in stepwise rehabilitation programs. Employers and health plans have incorporated these gadgets into weight loss, wellness and fitness programs for employees and subscribers, respectively.

As more fitness data is generated by people wearing gadgets, we will eventually enter a world where predictive algorithms will be able to detect that certain physical activity patterns may be suggestive of certain medication conditions.

Other data analytics tools will also emerge and will reveal how physical activity data may correlate with clinical outcomes for certain conditions. I think we may still be a few years away, because we need a critical mass of users to generate all this data, along with a group of motivated researchers who are willing to dig into all the activity trends and graphs. I believe we will see that in the next decade and will find ourselves in a new era where patient-generated big data will yield clinically meaningful information.

About the author:
Joseph Kim is a physician technologist who has a passion to leverage health IT to improve public health. Dr. Kim is the founder of NonClinicalJobs.com, as well as an active social media specialist. Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchhealthit.com or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

This was last published in August 2013

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