In the midst of the data and gadget revolutions, a new, crossbreed movement is emerging: around-the-clock health information tracking devices.
With healthcare growing more and more expensive, people are turning to alternative ways to take care of themselves and monitor their health. And with nifty little gadgets getting less expensive and more sophisticated by the day, health information tracking devices are part of the key to answering our healthcare needs. We seem to be moving towards something we like to call Body 2.0: the “networked” body, the new wave of constantly tracked, databased health information.
One of the latest devices adding to the Body 2.0 development is FitBit, which came out in October 2009. More than just a revamped pedometer, this Flash-drive sized monitor clips on to your clothing and makes daily logs of calories burned, steps taken, distance traveled, and sleep quality. Earlier this month, it staked it’s claim in the networked body movement, almost literally, by linking up with Facebook and letting people share and compare health stats with friends.
To track health data, the device uses a 3-D sensor similar to the one used in the Nintendo Wii. As you move about throughout the day, the device senses your movement in three dimensions, and converts your data into information. Then, when you get home the device automatically uploads the latest data via a wireless base station (which also acts as a charger) that you USB-tether to your computer.
Your data is made available on FitBit’s website (www.fitbit.com), where you have a profile that shows all of your information in neat graphs. These graphs give you an hour-by-hour account of how intensely you were moving (from sedentary to “very” active) and how many calories you were burning. The website also allows you to set goals for yourself, and track your food intake to get a better picture of how many calories you’re burning and how many your taking in.
And so we move towards a world in which all of our vital signs--from heart rate, to breathing patterns, to our mysterious circadian rhythms--will be tracked around-the-clock. But the implications of such health tracking extend far beyond individual people. As health data is collected on a site like FitBit.com, the company can create a database for use by doctors and researchers.
But with the data stored in a company-owned database, who really owns your personal information? This is a question that will continue to be discussed for devices like FitBit and for the Kaiser Permanente Biobank. Fortunately, users can control their privacy settings in public databases like the one on FitBit.com, but it remains to be seen what the company can do with your data, and whether or not you can print out your personal information. Unfortunately, FitBit was unavailable to comment on this issue.
As long as the privacy and information ownership issues are taken care of, forming a public database could prove to be a major breakthrough in health and medicine. If companies like FitBit increase their efforts to make their databases available to research groups--unfortunately right now it’s a big if--we will have a tool to track and understand human health patterns better than ever before. Researchers conducting studies on obesity, fitness levels, genetically-related disease, among other things, would greatly benefit from the added data and could focus on a broader range of demographics. In the end, it appears we’d be making great strides towards better medical treatments.
Unfortunately, at this point there is still a lot of legwork and effort needed to make this type of research a possibility. FitBit has a great product, but they have been nearly impossible to contact. One would hope that they will make themselves more accessible in the future so that researchers and doctors interested in developing their product into a research tool can move the ball forward.
Some companies are further along in the process--we’ve discussed how 23AndMe have started democratizing research. But now it’s time for them to start streamlining their information and creating easier access. More importantly, it’s time for other companies to join them in the movement towards global health databases, and ultimately, better medicine.