You don't have to be a data geek to love consumer health devices — but it helps

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There's a burgeoning ecosystem of consumer health and wellness devices, with more available (and occasionally, FDA-approved) each day.  The questions now are: (1) will these gadgets be able to communicate with each other, and (2) are these data useful - are these gadgets necessary?

The good news first: many health devices permit the easy sharing of at least some information.  For instance, as I recently described, I was easily able to link my Withings devices (a blood pressure monitor and a wifi scale) to my new doctor's office, providing her with an informative series of baseline measurements before I even set foot inside her office.

However, while my Jawbone Up activity monitor supposedly links to my Withings account, the Withings app doesn't seem to use the Jawbone activity information anywhere (even though "Activity" is one of the four quadrants Withing monitors), while my Jawbone app seems to import only the weight, not the blood pressure data.

The situation with my Garmin GPS running watch is even worse; while it syncs nicely with the Strava app, it doesn't seem to share data easily with most other health and wellness apps, including the data-friendly RunKeeper.  (A workaround, available here, enables manual porting between Garmin and Runkeeper, but not automatic data transfer, at least in my experience.)

A few startups (including TicTrac, currently in beta, and 1eq, which I gather is in some kind of stealth mode) are working on creating a universal tracker dashboard, but I've not yet come across an optimal, elegant solution that effortlessly consolidates and presents the data from all my devices.

Which brings us to perhaps the more important question: how much does any of this matter, really? Let's be honest - you don't need any special equipment to run, you can record your weight from a traditional scale, and you can buy an automatic blood pressure cuff at CVS for less than $30.

So when I jog, why do I find myself encased in technology, wearing an activity monitor and a GPS watch on my wrist, a pulse detector around my chest, listening to Planet Money podcasts from my Shuffle that's affixed to my head with Arriva headphones (perhaps my favorite gadget)?

As they say, you can take the guy out of math camp, but you can't take math camp out of the guy.

Which is to say: technology is fun; the data it produces, engaging.  I enjoy keeping track of the number of steps I take each day, and the amount of sleep I get each night.  It's fun to correlate my heart rate with my jogging pace, or the steepness of an incline.

In other words, my gadgets don't provide essential information I couldn't get elsewhere, but they motivate me to pursue and sustain activities I might otherwise avoid - like regularly checking my blood pressure, or finding time for a run.  They facilitate data sharing, whether with my doctor, as I've described, or with friends and family who can offer encouragement and motivation.

I don't believe any device offers a magical answer to health and wellness; on their own, gadgets are unlikely to get the sedentary off the couch, or spark health vigilance from the apathetic.

But gadgets can help  the many of us who just require a little nudge, helping the primed engage in healthier activities while sustaining the efforts of those who already there.

At least, that's what I keep telling myself.  Let's see what the numbers say.

[Disclosure: all devices described in this article were purchased (generally on Amazon), with the exception of the Jawbone Up, which I received gratis  from a colleague at the company.]

 

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About the Author

 

David
Shaywitz
  • Dr. Shaywitz trained in internal medicine and endocrinology at MGH, and conducted his post-doctoral research in the Melton lab at Harvard. He gained experience in early clinical drug development in the Department of Experimental Medicine at Merck, then joined the Boston Consulting Group’s Healthcare and Corporate Development practices, where he focused on strategy and organizational design. He is currently Director of Strategic and Commercial Planning at Theravance, a publicly-held drug development company in South San Francisco. He recently wrote Tech Tonics: Can Passionate Entreprenuers Heal Healthcare With Technology? 

  • Email: davidshaywitz.aei@gmail.com

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