The first seminar I attended at the mHealth 2013 Summit discussed consumer wearables and their effect on health. According to the panelists, the results are mixed.
The first panelist, Iana Simeonov of the UCSH School of Medicine, presented a case study on wearable sensors. In their research, they tried a lot of different sensors and created a “lending library” so other researchers could then determine which ones that seemed to be best.
One of the things they wanted to study was whether wearables, like the FitBit, which are intended for single users, could be used in a larger study. What they discovered was that there was no easy way to get the information from all the devices. Some had APIs. Some did not. None of them were designed for research purposes.
Another observation was the difficulty in getting people to stick to wearing them. Once the novelty factor wore off, people stopped wearing them. You could also hear the dismay in Simeonov’s tone when she noted that most of the devices are made for men and are bulky and difficult for women to wear.
Beyond form factor, another problems they encountered was how difficult they were to use. There were almost too many features, and they aren’t stand-alone devices. They all require setting up an account, and a laptop or a phone to sync the account with the devices. This puts them out of the range of poorer people.
A final issue was that there is no standardization on how to measure steps and other progress. They all use proprietary algorithms, making it difficult to switch from one to another while still tracking progress.
The next presenter was Olof Schybergson of Fjord, a service design consultancy company that focuses on making complex systems simple and elegant. He pointed out some ways consumer wearables are not meeting that goal.
Because of the aging population, he thinks we need to take big steps forward to address what he called a lifestyle crisis and bad lifestyle choices. He observed that the people who most need them are not using the devices. Data isn’t enough. Data needs to be turned into information people can act on and visualize. He challenged the health wearables industry to do a better job at that.
The final panelist was Shivani Goyal of the Centre for Global eHealth Innovation, and she agreed with most of what her fellow panelists had said. She added that the software element of wearables could be better and echoed both the prior panelists that motivation is lacking to keep people using the devices.
She discussed the data silos and how those need to be broken down so correlations can be made between data on disease and disease prevention measures. Without that, the wearable devices will never move beyond fads.
I liked her point that wearables, done right, can improve rural health monitoring.
One of the questions from the audience produced a chilling fact. The question was, “How will clinicians get data from the devices in a way other than handing a doctor a print-out?”
The answer? None of the panelists were aware of any centralized database of information which patients could sign up for. Again, without centralization of data, the devices will never become as useful as they could be.
Unfortunately, there were no easy answers from the panel. Behavior change is difficult to motivate. We have information and knowledge, but we still make bad choices. A new gadget alone doesn’t inspire people to change behavior.
So what about you? What’s your favorite health wearable? Has it motivated you to make lasting change? Why and how?