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30 September 2015

Happily healthy

Making the most of technology to track wellness means matching high-quality data to powerful analysis.

By New Scientist

LET’S face it, we are a nation obsessed with our health. Earlier this year, the Philips Picture of Health Report mapped attitudes to wellness among more than 2000 people across the UK. It found that one in ten people now actively tracks and manages their health with a connected device – for example, wearable technology, a smartphone or an app. Of those, 88 per cent say this has led to a positive change of habit, such as increasing exercise levels or improving their diet.

The market for health trackers and wearables is predicted to be worth more than $53 billion by 2019. And even those who are not using these devices are increasingly turning to the internet and other sources for health-related information.

And that leads to a significant challenge. “The problem is that people have access to so much information these days, but not all of it is helpful,” says Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the British Medical Association’s General Practitioners Committee. Assessing this mountain of information is tricky because there is little guidance about when to worry and when to keep calm.

Those who wear their smart tech religiously can get themselves in trouble. “These kinds of≈people can potentially create a problem for our already time-pressed GPs,” says Vautrey. “If people are increasingly monitoring aspects of their health, like their blood pressure, and some data point steps outside of the normal range, they might get worried and head to their doctor. But a doctor would probably be much more relaxed about this kind of variation.”

Connecting the dots

So, while new wearable technologies provide data, people struggle to make it all meaningful. What’s needed is scientifically sound measurements coupled with equally sound analysis.

“What we need to do to have a positive impact on health is to connect the dots,” says Liat Ben-Zur, director of digital technology at Philips. For example, one device might record your blood glucose levels, a second stores your calorie intake and a third – perhaps your official medical record – stores information about your family history of heart disease. This data needs to be combined in a meaningful way, she says.

That’s the approach Philips is taking.

Ben-Zur and her colleagues have created a number of devices that all link up to the Philips HealthSuite digital platform, a secure cloud-based store that records data from many sources and can send it to a tablet or smart phone. Among the suite of devices are blood pressure monitors, a smart scale and the Philips health watch, which can measure heart rate as well as general activity levels.

These devices use Bluetooth to connect to the HealthSuite Digital platform where the data is stored in a way that meets the highest privacy and security standards.

But here’s where things get interesting. It’s not enough just to store all this data in the same place, says Ben-Zur – you also have to have the right people analysing it in order for you to make sense of the numbers. That’s why you can choose to share your information with medical experts who will help you use it to make benefitial behavioural changes.

Philips has physicians, cardiologists, dieticians and others all working in the background to make sure that the data its devices collect is used in a meaningful way by healthcare professionals and individuals. Even the alerts its app sends out that motivate users to walk a bit further, or eat a bit better, are thoroughly examined by specialists, says
Ben-Zur. “We have behavioural scientists who come in and tell us ‘when you tend to say something in this way, it works better than if you say it that way’. That’s where the magic really happens.”

Indeed, Philips has created a range of Personal Health Programs that feed this advice to consumers who use the service. These people will be able to measure their vital signs to understand how lifestyle choices affect their body, set themselves goals and monitor their progress.

The approach has already proved its worth in a clinical setting. A team from Philips and Banner Health in Arizona, investigated whether this kind of technology might help people who have recently come out of hospital avoid being readmitted. Researchers gave individuals at highest risk of readmission – those with several chronic diseases – various cloud-connected sensors, such as a heart rate monitor, a GPS device and a sensor that detects falls.

They then monitored the users’ health from afar. “The data allowed them to proactively identify when a person might have health issues and reach out to them,” says Ben-Zur. That led to a 45 per cent reduction in readmission rates.

Making it meaningful

Tracking health beyond the clinical setting can have benefits too. The Philips Picture of Health Report found a positive correlation between people who tracked their health and overall feelings of well-being. Among these, people who monitor their health using a connected device, such as a smartphone or other form of wearable, are using them to explore, healthier lifestyles. These devices are helping them increase their exercise levels, manage their weight and reduce their sugar intake. Most of these people say that this tracking has empowered them to take control of their health.

That’s just the start. With the wearables market growing rapidly, an increasing number of us are about to be exposed to this entirely new way of tracking our health. “The problem is that there are thousands of cool wearables out there that capture really interesting data, but they all live in different silos in the cloud,” says Ben-Zur. Philips’ devices are different – they connect to an online environment where the data can be combined to create a broader and more comprehensive picture of an individual’s health.

And by giving healthcare professionals access to this data, people can have more meaningful conversations about their health and the steps they can take to improve their well-being.  For doctors like Vautrey, that can only lead to better patient relationships and better outcomes. 

This story is part of a series exploring the way innovation is improving health. For more, visit:  

This article was first published by the New Scientist on 29 October and is re-published here with permission.

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