Why the New Digital Health Apps Might Succeed Where Self-Help Fails

In all, the implications for powering algorithms and analyzing real-world patient data are enormous -- and they point toward more responsibility, along with freedom of choice, for the individual.
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Despite efforts by both government and the medical profession, not to mention countless New Years' resolutions, people still smoke, consume unhealthy food, become overweight and fail to exercise. But with digital self empowerment moving into its next chapter, that could all change. There is reason to believe that the new digital health apps being developed by consumer technology giants like Apple, Samsung and Google -- self-monitoring devices such as the Apple Watch, Simband and Google Fit -- may be able to change behaviors that four-plus decades of diet books, yoga videos and self-help seminars -- not to mention anemic marketing campaigns -- have largely failed to achieve.

So far the evidence is promising that a consumer-led approach might be more successful at making human behavior change, more so than previous approaches. Smart monitoring devices address people's failures head on, reviewing their issues not with the tut-tutting of white-coated medical authorities or bronzed sycophants, but with the grassroots power of social media.

Let's take a closer look at how these personal-scale monitoring devices came to be. Back in 2005, GE took an imaginative leap and introduced a portable ultrasound machine for use in emerging markets. It quickly caught fire worldwide, and soon no self-respecting hospital the world over would be caught sporting the old clunkers.

In fact, making things smaller, preferably hand-held, has been the mantra of medical device technology for two decades. Now add to miniaturization and portability the wireless component, non-invasive body sensors, and connection to smartphones for data retrieval and sharing by health providers and peers, and you have the entire consumer equation on the new digital health apps.

As to making technology seem sexy, Apple, for one, is ingenious at creating products that people really want to own and use -- products that relate to their aspirations for a better life. In this sense, the new health devices and apps are a shoe-in for making the connection between the user as customer and the user as patient. They also help customers take charge of their health, and take responsibility for exercising and taking other precautions and corrective actions to improve their "numbers."

So what's different? First, the "digital app" way is a world away from that of health care institutions, which place the disease rather than the patient at the center of their approach. People want to know about themselves; it's human nature. When they use these new digital health apps not only to better themselves, but in the context of a social media platform, they can help each other on a peer-to-peer level to behave, perform, live -- and know each other -- better. But key to this is the next level of integration: big data, or more specifically, data about thousands of other individuals falling into a similar health profile. With this added component, some meaningful direction can come out of the self-monitoring, all powered by self-motivation.

To illustrate: Anyone's health is part of an ongoing story. No individuals got to the condition of health they are in today without multiple health events and choices occurring throughout their life to get them there. Likewise, today's health markers will inform a future trajectory. Consider one scenario, where a seasoned triathlete in his mid-50s monitors his heart rate during workouts, using his wristband device. His biometric data feed shows sustained periods of heart rate over 200 beats per minute -- significantly more than the 170 bpm maximum for his age group. He tends to consume a lot of caffeine, he has a low body mass index, and his patient record shows complaints of heart palpitations. His trajectory, informed by data on thousands of others with a similar profile, shows a definite risk of heart attack, and the possibility of atrial arrhythmia. By discovering the high heart rate, the device points the way for him to get additional tests with a cardiologist, reduce his caffeine intake, and possibly modify his exercise regimen to ensure that his heart rate doesn't continue to exceed the maximum.

In another example, one of these apps turns up biometric data showing that a middle-aged woman consumes more high-carb calories on days when she's not drinking enough water and she's more sedentary; and she eats the most junk food on days when she's slept poorly the night before. (Sound familiar?) Insights from this data include that the body often confuses the signals for hunger and dehydration, and that lack of sleep throws off the balance of the appetite-suppressing hormone leptin and the appetite stimulant ghrelin. Using the device and possibly sharing these findings with friends through social media, she can secure support in getting better sleep, taking a walk every 30 minutes during sedentary periods, and shifting to eating more complex carbohydrates that won't cause her insulin levels to increase.

These digital health platforms will thus need to be able to combine multiple streams of data and past patient health history in order to be effective. In this regard, Apple and Samsung are building in innovation, allowing for both more access to biometric data and more openness for health data exchange among people and their health providers. Using the incredible technological power of these IT giants, the data can work seamlessly - encouraging people to accept that health is now part of this world of smart phones, smart cars, and smart cities. It's all so easy to use, so portable, so convenient - I can use it right at home! - so small, so easily configurable, so... simple.

But the big question, and the biggest sticking point for most consumers, is security. What are they doing with my data? A study we issued with the World Economic Forum earlier this year, Rethinking Personal Data, points to some new thinking on engendering consumer trust in how data is used. The empowered consumer needs to know that there's a balance being maintained between her privacy, corporate transparency, and the gathering of all this data; in fact, with a mandatory opt-in feature that excludes the exchange of consumer information without express approval, these devices are a more secure way of keeping records than a paper file in a physician's office.

In all, the implications for powering algorithms and analyzing real-world patient data are enormous -- and they point toward more responsibility, along with freedom of choice, for the individual. When we assume more responsibility for tracking our own health, things are more likely to get done -- especially things like making improvements in our dietary and exercise habits. It's a kind of self-help that, with a little help from the world of technology, just might make us a healthier nation.

Rajeev Kapoor is a partner in the Health practice of A.T. Kearney, a global management consulting firm. He can be reached at Rajeev.Kapoor@atkearney.com

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