Using Smartphone apps and sensors, a group of high tech pioneers are tracking their own body systems and providing themselves and medical researchers with a trove of health data. The goal is to use digitalized medicine to help us all lead healthier lives.
Dr. Larry Smarr is a 63 year old astrophysicist turned IT guru who as Director of the California Institute for Telecommunication and Information Technology (Calit2), is a proponent of a new kind of medical science called “self quantification” in which “everyday Joes and Janes” monitor their own bodily functions to an extent previously thought impossible. At the forefront of this movement is Quantified Self (http://quantifiedself.com/), a website with branches in 50 cities worldwide (the closest to Cleveland is in Pittsburgh or Chicago) with a core group of self trackers estimated at about 7500. Their motto is “self knowledge through numbers” and they believe that using thorough data analysis and statistics can optimize how we live.
When you log on to the website, you see one woman’s fascinating experimentation with the dosage and timing of her vitamin D supplementation. In a very rigorous manner, she tracks her dosing, her mood, her sleep patterns and determines that it is more helpful “for her” to take vitamin D in the morning. To conduct a large scale study that looks at all these parameters would cost tens of thousands of dollars; take about 2 years to plan, get through an ethics board and analyze the data and another 2 years to publish.
Some scientists scoff at this form of scientific research, noting that it says nothing other than “what works for that individual” and cannot be generalized. Moreover, there may be what researchers call observer bias that is introduced because the person conducting the study is the same one who is interpreting the data. But increasingly, we are becoming aware that medicine is not one size fits all. After all, if we are monitoring what to do about high blood pressure, why should we make the patient come into the office when we can get 24 hours of blood pressure readings by using an app on a Smartphone? Diabetics can soon measure their blood sugar noon invasively (without drawing blood) with another app on their Smartphone. Dr. Eric Topol, a cardiologist (formerly at the Cleveland Clinic) and now Professor of Genomics and Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in La Jolla, California, believes that this is future of medicine. He notes that people like Smarr who wear a band on their arms that tells them their daily calorie consumption, their number of footsteps and their heart rate, who sleep with a Zeo headband that records sleep stages by measuring brain activity at night and who use information about their gene sequences to influence their daily activity are just the earliest examples of a time when “Patients will know more about themselves than their doctors do….and that is a good thing.”
We, at Senders Pediatrics, believe that this digital future is almost here and that with the speed of digital change, the world of the gadflies will be our world very soon. Government regulations about confidentiality are rapidly breaking down. After all, when self trackers, readily share their data on line, we will be hard pressed to not allow our patients to share their data with us. Insurance companies are starting to come on board with these new technologies. Rick Lee from Healthrageous, a company that advises insurance companies, runs a platform where self trackers upload their data and in exchange, receive comprehensive health tracking. He envisions a day when people who don’t self track, may pay higher premiums. We already know that certain drugs don’t work or have more side effects in some patients more than in others. And with the sequencing of the genetic code, we are just a few short steps away from using data about your gene type to tell us which test is helpful or necessary and which intervention (medicine or non medicine) will work the best. More about this exciting new world as digital tools become more readily available.