Wearables are gaining such explosive traction in the consumer space these days, you’d be blind (and deaf)… or perhaps just live somewhere remote to not know about them. Fitbit, Jawbone, Vivofit, Basis, you name it. There are dozens upon dozens on the market today, and that number isn’t going down any time soon. Apple is going to release their Watch soon, and many other great new ideas are on the immediate horizon. I’m looking forward to my impending pair of smart socks by Sensoria quite soon, in fact.
Trackers, or “wearables” (short for wearable technology) are popular because they give consumers a level of control over their lives that they never had previously. “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, the old management axiom goes. It’s true. If I didn’t know how active or inactive I was on a given day, how could I improve my fitness? If I don’t know what my resting heart rate is, how can I tell if I’m working out hard enough or not? Or too hard? If I wake up feeling crappy, if I don’t know how much I was tossing and turning, how can I tell why I had a bad sleep? Short answer; you can’t. And for most of history up to this point, you had to guess. You had to use a manual pedometer to count steps. You had learn how to measure your heart rate by putting fingers on your neck and watching a stopwatch. You had to go to the doctor’s office to have your blood pressure read or to have a sleep study conducted.
This is another shift in empowerment of the consumer. Think back to how we used to have to buy a car in the 1980’s or early 1990’s. All of the power resided with the car dealers, because they had control over all of the information. We had no idea what the blue book prices were, no access to vehicle history, and very little ability to comparison shop. When Kelly Blue Book went online for free, Carfax was born, and online comparison tools rose, the power shifted to the consumer. Today, car dealers make very little on each individual car sale, and instead have to try and go for volume to make money. This is exactly what is happening with health and fitness data today.
Which brings me to my point. I heard a story on NPR the other day. “Sure You Can Track Your Health Data, but Can Your Doctor Use It?” Doctors are the new car dealers. This new empowerment of consumers armed with gobs of data are shifting the power base in health care. And like any time in history when you try to change a power base, there is backlash from those who stand to lose power. It is just human nature. Doctors are on the line now to have to shift the way they do their work, and many of them don’t like it, because their consumers are becoming more educated. Sure we are all warned about the hazards of self-diagnosis, and to consult your doctor. But on the contrary, as doctors are becoming harder and harder to access due to shortages and the “15 minute rule”, where they try to see as many patients in a day as possible, coming to the exam room armed with data to show what is important and what is not can be a real game-changer.
Dr. Paul Abramson who was interviewed in the NPR story says: “I get information from watching people’s body language, tics and tone of voice,” he says. “Subtleties you just can’t get from a Fitbit or some kind of health app.” The story also says that Dr. Abramson isn’t a technophobe, and also an engineer. What he isn’t is a data person. Or even a data scientist. And, for me, there’s the rub. Doctors are going to have to start becoming “data people”, and fast. If not, their jobs are going to evaporate and they will be replaced by those who can be. Watching people’s body language and tone of voice is fine, but a terabyte of empirical data will trump that any day. Data will tell exactly what is going on in a person’s body. Large, self-collected data sets will provide a much clearer picture of a person’s health than a 15 minute office visit can tell. Data will be more complete than a 5 or 10 minute test can tell. And, most importantly, data will allow us to start making accurate forecasts and predictions on our health, and help us avoid potential problems before they become problems.
Imagine if a person was wearing a small wrist band that does constant heart rate monitoring. Based on months of 24/7 monitoring data, imagine if an app could predict if that person was becoming at risk for having a heart attack? Or at risk for a having a stroke based on blood pressure data? This is all possible when we start having access to large, rich data sets of consumer health information. And this is only the beginning.
The problem is going to be what the problem in healthcare IT has always been. There are no overall standards or governance on how health data is stored, and each hospital, doctor’s office, and insurance company have different ways of doing it. And each is very entrenched in their own process and very reluctant to change. I worked in healthcare IT for several years (my wife has for over 25 years), and I can say from experience that it is like the Wild West. But we’re going to have to find ways to break down those walls and insist that our health care includes some expert analysis of our consumer-collected health data. We’d be silly not to.
As more and more consumers are tracking their health data, the pressure will become more intense on doctors to start incorporating it into their care plans for patients. Doctors like Dr. Abramson won’t be able to just shrug and not know what to do with it. In a few more years, vastly more patients will be coming to the exam room armed with data. Insurance companies are already starting with the pressure, too. Many plans are starting to offer discounts to members who wear a tracker and log a certain number of steps per year. Healthier people are cheaper to cover. Why not use that data in the exam room, too?
What do you think about the future or wearables and health care?
Would you use a different doctor if you knew that your data would be evaluated?
What part of this is scary to you?