What Your Smartphone Can Tell You About Your Health

An introduction to the quantified self

Using a smart phone.
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Of course, some conditions lend themselves more easily to monitoring than others. Diabetics, for example, have long employed blood glucose monitors to periodically check blood sugar. On the other hand, doctors overseeing people with asthma have relied on limited, unscientific data – patients' own recall and reporting of inhaler usage, says David Van Sickle, an asthma epidemiologist in Madison, Wisc. His company, Asthmapolis, aims to change that through sensors that attach to inhalers and record the time and place of usage. The data get recorded in an app and transmitted to the user along with customized feedback that can be shared with a physician.

The reward for such tracking means managing a condition that, uncontrolled, spirals quickly into an onslaught of symptoms and $3,000 to $4,000 a year in doctor visits or trips to the emergency room, Van Sickle says. "The goal should be for us to develop products and services that make it easier for people to accomplish what I think of as the work of illness," he says, referring to the opportunities presented by new technologies.

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Managing illness is one such opportunity. But that's just the start of what's possible.

With Lift, for example, Stubblebine says that usage follows Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" theory, in which people address their basic needs, like health, before moving to more enlightened ones, like happiness. Stubblebine used the application initially to revive his exercise routine, and having done that, he's on to more refined priorities. "I just started tracking random acts of kindness," he says. Couched as a community for self-improvement – investors include motivational gurus Tony Robbins and Tim Ferriss, author of "The 4-Hour Workweek" – Lift lets users share their experiences around common objectives like meditation or one called "tell my wife I love her."

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But collecting personal data doesn't always make life easier. Wilbanks of the Kauffman Foundation gave up on his activity tracker, which he kept leaving in his jeans, where it went through the wash. There's also the matter of what to do with all that data. "I don't know what to do with a giant file of my steps," he says.

Beyond the level of the individual, and even health care more generally, the Quantified Self movement carries political overtones, Wilbanks says, explaining that people are trying to gain control over valuable personal information. He points to Facebook, cell phone companies and any other provider in which "you sign a contract, click OK without reading it, that says we own all the data that comes off of your sensor."

It's why you receive random text messages or see an ad for something you just looked up on your iPhone. "The sensors are going to get cheaper, smaller and more ubiquitous, and the ability of the researchers to figure out how to infer health from those sensors is going to continue to explode," Wilbanks says. "Everyone's going to be getting quantified a lot faster than they realize, and it really comes back to who is in charge."