The autumn tech rumor mill is in full swing. Apple is said to be releasing or announcing some form of "iWatch." The new wearable computer, burnishing the Apple patina, is rumored to be capable of measuring the user's blood pressure, hydration level, heart rate, steps taken, etc. Some in the know even predict it might provide the time too! Apple's new wearable device will likely push the quantified self movement into higher gear.
The quantified self refers to the use of sensor technology to collect our body's vitals as well as aspects of our daily lives from how many steps we take, what and how much food we eat, to the wide variety of activities we might pursue to improve our well-being -- physically, emotionally, cognitively and more. Information that only a few years ago would have been exclusively measured in a hospital or research laboratory is now being collected by sensors on your wrists, belts, shoelaces, eye glasses and the like to form your own personal body area network. The data are uploaded to cloud-based systems, enabling you to track your progress over time or compare your activity with other people like you.
The underlying assumption is that having these data will influence your health behaviors and be useful to clinicians and families providing care. Just imagine the potential to manage chronic conditions or the medication adherence of elderly patients. However, data alone does not drive behavioral change, well-being or ensure effective care.
The quantified self health enthusiasts should consider the cautionary tale of the financial services and retirement planning industry experience with "data." Few domains of life are as quantified as your financial self -- you have your credit score, savings and checking balances, 401Ks, stocks, bonds, funds and more aided by countless apps, reports and plans provided by banks, employers and financial advisors all available online, on the phone, in person and at your local ATM. Does the question "what's your number" ring a bell? However, the abundance of information and data on personal finance hasn't translated into healthy financial behavior change. There is record low financial literacy, savings rates and retirement planning. EBRI indicates more than 50 percent of Americans have less than $25K saved for retirement. Bankrate.com suggests that nearly 36percent of Americans 18+ have not even started saving for retirement.
So while I, and many other tech geeks, eagerly await the next wearable gadget, the promise and power of the quantified self requires non-tech related innovations to realize a data-enabled health utopia. Health and wealth should continue to develop the tools but focus on translating the devices and data into real innovations in consumer engagement. Here are few considerations:
Data vs. Meaning: We can visualize the data we collect from countless gadgets, but will we understand what the data means? Even if know your retirement "number" does that knowledge empower you or unnerve you? How does the data vary under a variety of conditions and factors? For example, does a rapid heart rate indicate an underlying disease or did you forget that before you downloaded the data you ran up the stairs to access the web as fast as you could to use that new supercool health visualization app?
Integration with Service Delivery: Even if you provide 24/7 data over days, weeks or years to your healthcare team, do they have the tools to store, analyze and translate those data into effective interventions? Beyond the technical barriers, many physicians are still challenged on how best to respond to patients who arrive in their office with a list of symptoms and a stack of 'research' they have downloaded from Dr. Google, let alone a USB flash drive of data downloaded from their running shoes. In contrast, financial services have more 'platforms' to spin and analyze data, but often lack the professionals who can exhibit the empathy that most physicians and nurses inherently have to encourage optimal behaviors and outcomes.
Make it Fun: Despite these fundamental challenges, the real potential of the quantified self movement is the potential to bring fun, friends and even fashion to health. Apple, Nike, Fitbit and others' provide the opportunity to share experiences and tips with 'friends' as well as the gamification of healthy behaviors. This is an area where finance has floundered. Despite saving being necessary to live well or retire well, few have been able to make money and financial planning fun. Maybe the next iteration of an iWatch could alert you that it is time to pass on the flat screen television you are pricing and save instead.