Gigaom: “Your Phone Will Soon be your new Doctor”

While I love the enthusiasm for innovation being expressed in articles like this Gigaom piece by Jason Jacobs, CEO at RunKeeper, I’m also concerned about how it highlights a growing disconnect between the desires of Mobile App developers and the needs of patients and the healthcare industry.

Of course I am very biased on this (at 3G Doctor we let you access the advice of independent Doctors via your mobile) but it’s such a shame that the focus of this article is on the use of mHealth tech to replace rather than support and modernise existing evidence based care pathways.

Imagine a day when your phone has all of your health information. It knows your goals, your time horizons and what activities you need to focus on to achieve those goals. It knows your schedule, whether you like to do things alone or in groups and who you like to train with. It knows what you eat, how much you’ve slept and all of your vital signs in real-time. Based on the information it collects, your phone will lay out a plan to help you live a healthier life. It will notify you when it’s time for an activity (i.e. taking a pill, going on a walk or taking your blood pressure), and adjust this plan as you go, based on what is and isn’t working

To me this all presumes that citizens have bought in to the idea that they want to take orders from their mobile and that in the future there won’t be any competition for the mobile real estate.

Unfortunately there are an increasing number of ever more exciting multimedia mobile experiences that will distract individuals from the path that leads to good health and there is plenty of evidence that this future will be arrived at first (if we’re not there already) eg. alcohol and high-fructose corn syrup brands are far more advanced with their mobile strategies than healthcare providers.

To my mind this concept in the article fails because it is akin to someone in the 1920’s predicting that in the future Times Square will be filled with health food shops and adverts for ecologically sound and ethically sourced treadmills and exercise bikes…

The more it learns about you and others like you, the more effective its guidance will become. There will be a day when the phone will be able to predict if a runner is on a path to overtraining

There are simple blood tests that are already used by athletes to calculate this accurately, for the vast majority of people this is an easy to avoid problem that is knowingly being ignored (eg. anyone who’s registering for a marathon is being given guidance on preparation but unfortunately that doesn’t mean they’re all doing it).

or tell someone who is trying to lose weight if he would get better results by adding another hour of sleep per night

The vast majority of people trying to lose weight would benefit from getting another hour of sleep but knowing that information will very often not make a difference (they may have to get up early to go to work, they want to have a social life after work, they have children to feed/wash, etc).

All too often just knowing you need to do something is not the same as having the willpower or capacity to do it.

Many people are up in arms about how much your phone already knows about you. Some feel it’s an invasion of privacy, especially if the data got into the wrong hands. But there’s another side to this coin. If this data is harnessed for the greater good, especially as it relates to your personal health, it could be greatly beneficial. The shift to using the phone as a personal health device could play a big part in making people more accountable for their well-being, and it could have major ramifications for doctors and health insurance companies

Or perhaps it’ll be more information that we ignore, concrete unarguable data that further distances individuals from taking better care of themselves or increased capacity for health insurers to refuse to cover an individual?

Lots of apps have emerged in the last few years to track all of this health information. Consumers are using apps such as Lose It! to track the food they eat, RunKeeper (my company) to track their runs, walks and bike rides, Zeo to track their sleep, and Instant Heart Rate to track their heart rate on-demand. Now that these apps are getting real traction, the data sets in consumer health are growing quickly. As an example, RunKeeper has more than 12 million users around the world. Our Health Graph API is already seeing several hundred million API calls per month from more than 85 integration partners, which is up 1,500 percent in the last year alone

Numbers are great but I think it’s important that we now move towards trying to share the impact that these apps are making on patients lives:

How many lives has it saved? What long term contribution to health is being made? Would these 12 million patients be exercising without the app? etc…

By using your phone as a health monitor, different incentives can be implemented to increase your accountability even further… …Now, insurance companies are starting to get involved in this category, too. It is only a matter of time before you’ll be able to get discounted insurance rates based on how well you take care of your health

I think it’s important to appreciate the other side of the coin eg. does it mean there will be “penalty” insurance rates for those who don’t take care of their health and will this lead to gaming of the system?

Perhaps in the future we’ll see dogs out walking with their owners Smartphone strapped to their collar?

Over time, people will come to rely more on their phone to keep them healthy than they do on their actual doctor. Rather than going once a year for a check-up and to get a few basic tests done, you will be monitored day in and day out by your phone

I’d suggest to anyone developing mHealth tech who thinks this is what a good Doctor is doing to go and volunteer to work in their local GP clinic or Hospital for a few weekends/evenings.

This does not mean that doctors will go away, but it does mean that the role of the doctor will be forever altered. It also means that doctors will be empowered with a lot more data on what their patients are up to between visits, which will help them provide better care

I’m surprised that despite such enthusiasm for the informational opportunity there’s still so much confidence in visits. Why not just adopt best practice from Doctors who understand the evolving informational challenge that modern Doctor-Patient consultations present with?

My take-away

I think there’s more value in talking about how mobiles are already helping Patients and their Doctors instead of trying to suggest concepts are on the horizon that will enable phones to replace Doctors

About David Doherty
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