M-health, quantified-self, daily tracking, Fitbit, BodyMedia, Runkeeper, MyFitnessPal, Strava, even Nike has gotten in the game. The ways in which consumers can keep track of their health seems to multiply each day. The average consumer device is about $200, often with a monthly subscription fee to track results. Some only charge a subscription if you want more detailed access to your results. At the same time, complex sensors and accelerometers used in medical research can cost thousands of dollars. Sure they are more accurate, but are they more effective in motivating behavior change?
These were some of the questions raised in the American Physical Therapy Conference Session “Mobile Health Technologies” presented by George D. Fulk, Edward Sazonov, and James Cavanaugh.
They reviewed popular consumer devices from a clinical research perspective and weighed them against professional healthcare devices, looking at accuracy, convenience, user preference, and price. While the professional devices are still more accurate, for all other factors it did seem like the consumer devices were winning. For example, many of the new devices, like FitBit can be easily hidden beneath your clothes, while ActivePal‘s anklet makes the wearer look like they are under house arrest. Female participants in one study using ActivePal removed the anklet when they wore skirts. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, BodyMedia showed trackers that look like jewelry which would solve this problem, and provide some nice word of mouth marketing for them. While professional devices may record more accurate results, is the overall study more accurate if the subject isn’t being consistently monitored?
Another criticism of the consumer devices was the inability to get raw data, and that if the data were shared, it wasn’t encrypted for HIPAA compliance. Given the price difference, market potential, and popularity of consumer devices, we can imagine these differences will fade in the long run.
The New York Times reported this past week that more and more people are turning to electronic health monitoring. There are over 13,000 personal health tracking apps available. While some track automatically, self-tracking has shown promise in chronic disease management.
A study by Pew research referred to in the NY Times article found “most people with several chronic conditions said that tracking had led them to ask a doctor new questions, led them to seek a second opinion or influenced their treatment decisions.” As well, at Wellpepper we’ve noticed that FitBit has driven a new level of awareness around the number of steps a person should be taking each day, 10K according to Locke et al, with technology venture capitalists challenging each other on a virtual leaderboard.
What does all of this mean for physical therapists? The panelists in the session admitted that the profession is often behind the game in technology adoption, and as a result the technology isn’t developed in a way to be most useful to physical therapists. They encouraged researchers to collaborate with engineering to see better results. Here at Wellpepper, we are technologists building our products in close collaboration with professionals in rehab and research. We are hoping to help bridge this gap between consumer and professional healthcare technology. If you’re passionate about how mobile technology could improve your practice, we’d love to hear from you!