Health tracking apps: Not yet ready to make a big impact

Almost no one really uses smartphone apps to track their health. That’s my takeaway from the latest Pew Research report. Although the report says close to 70% of adults are tracking some health statistics such as weight, diet or medical symptoms most of them do so either in their head (49%) or on paper (34%). The 21% who report using some kind of technology are split among a medical device (e.g., glucometer), app, spreadsheet, or website. Some people use technology and paper or keep info in their heads.┬áNot surprisingly it’s people with chronic illnesses who are more likely to track information.

I don’t think the current generation of health apps is going to take us very far. It’s tedious to enter data and many people would rather just forget about their illness then spend a lot of time gathering, entering and analyzing it. And even if the information is tracked it doesn’t mean it will be used.

I have had to maintain a medical journal, but I use a simple spreadsheet that I can print and email to the doctor. That’s despite the fact that there are some cute apps available that supposedly make things simpler. I’m definitely the exception in that I’m willing to track details accurately over a long period of time and use them in appointments and phone calls with physicians. And let’s face it, a high proportion of the 49% of people who say they track things in their head are deluding themselves about the quality of their data.

The key to health tracking will be passive data collection. Once the smartphone can keep an eye on its owner’s activities, symptoms and vital signs we’ll be in a whole different place. There will still be the need to sift through the massive amount of data generated to summarize it and glean the useful tidbits, but that’s actually an easier problem to solve than the passive sensor challenge.

Until we get to really smart, passive devices, which will take a decade or more, you should expect to see successive editions of the Pew report saying more or less what this one says.

January 31, 2013

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