How digital technology is helping consumers take control of their health and wellness
by Mark Curtis, Chief Client Officer, Fjord and Julie Bretland, Director of Our Mobile Health. Nov 13
Your watch is your personal trainer. Your bracelet congratulates you on your daily water intake and suggests eating more power foods. Your phone is monitoring your blood glucose levels. An app tracks potential symptoms of anxiety and depression. Welcome to the mHealth revolution.
Advances in digital technology are transforming accessories such as mobiles, watches and wristbands (wearables) into real-time, personalised, portable health monitors. By combining the ability of mobile apps to communicate with smart watches and smart bands in order to collect data in real-time, with the increasing availability of external sensor networks (examples here?), we can track everything from the amount of exercise we take, our personal biomarkers, to our diet and hydration levels. The devices then transfer the data to a diagnostic hub located in the cloud in order to provide us with individually tailored insights on how we can live a healthier lifestyle.
Every breath you take
This level of self-monitoring – also known as body-hacking or understanding the “quantified self” is growing. ABI research estimates the global market for wearables in health and fitness could reach 170 million devices by 2017. Meanwhile there are also over 97,000 health and wellness apps available from the App Store and Google Play store.
When it comes to assessing the impact of these digital self-monitoring services on consumers’ health and wellness, it’s still very early days. For example, of those 97,000 apps in the App store, only 20% are ever actually downloaded. Most consumers download between three and five health and wellness apps at a time—for anything from fertility to sleep monitoring—knowing that only one will deliver a quality experience for them. Apps that don’t work as advertised or which deliver advice that is too generic only serve to deter consumers from using them.
In order to build consumer trust and truly empower them to take control of their own health, designers must come up with digital self-monitoring solutions that are both technically sustainable and that consumers find really easy to use.
And, while many companies (including some surprising candidates) are getting into the smartband or smartwatch market, it isn’t just the physical side of wearables that designers should focus on, it’s the services we design on top of the wearables that matter.
At a recent mobile conference Fjord asked the tech savvy audience how many of them owned a Nike Fuelband or equivalent. Only a handful of people raised their hands. Even in a circle of typical “early adopters” there isn’t so far a wholesale move towards consumers using wearables to take control of their health. It is up to service designers to create an experience that supports and enhances consumers’ quest for greater autonomy over their health and wellbeing.
To this end we’re likely to see a growing demand for “quantified self” mash-ups or self-monitoring hubs. These mash-ups and hubs will create a holistic view of a consumer’s health by offering a wide range of self-monitoring apps in one place. Crucially for building consumer trust, these hubs will be provided by a brand with trusted healthcare credentials whose insights are medically sound. They will be smartphone-based and able to track and advise consumers on a broad range of health indicators from mood, to vitals, to calorie intake in a way that is tailored to the consumer’s specific needs. This highly personalised approach eliminates the likelihood of consumers being given incorrect or dangerously generic advice. And by providing a reliable service that works across platforms, we believe such hubs will start to drive take-up of digital self-monitoring services.
And while wearables are only part of the story in terms of the success of digital self-monitoring services, their role is critical. Data collection is at the heart of the mHealth revolution. In order to avoid consumers being confronted with a mass of metrics, the designers of wearables and other devices must focus on presenting the insights they gather to consumers in a simple and engaging way. After all the aim of the mHealth revolution is to create smarter patients, not zombies suffering from data overload.
Hacking the healthcare system
Empowering users in the mHealth space goes beyond the wellness realm. Digital technology is also moving into medical diagnostics. Now sensors that are incorporated into wearables, use non-invasive, inexpensive methods to start to detect possible health problems facing individual consumers. At TEDGlobal 2012 TED Fellow and mathematician Max Little announced the launch of Parkinson’s Voice Initiative featuring an algorithm that uses voice recognition to detect whether the consumer has Parkinson’s disease. There are also developments to use breath to detect lung cancer via an “electronic nose”, speaking and typing diagnostic tools are also being explored.
While technology is moving into areas of medical diagnosis, deciding how to treat patients with medical conditions remains firmly in the hands of medical professionals. And that’s where the rapid advancement of mobile technology in the healthcare sector bumps up against its real world implementation.
Even if a person is a “quantified self” superuser, when it comes to processing the data patients generate about their health, so far medical professionals have had very little training in what to do with it. What’s more, they aren’t paid by insurance, pharmaceuticals companies or the NHS for adopting this new approach. In order for consumers to consistently use digital self-monitoring services to take control of their health and wellness, mHealth needs to be fully integrated within the healthcare infrastructure of insert country and fully embraced by healthcare professionals.
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