Automated Health Apps Coming Your Way

There’s a fairly new Thai restaurant near Union Square in San Francisco that’s my favorite. They run a special promotion with a punch card that lets you get one free buffet bowl for every 10 you buy. I was the second person in the restaurant’s history to get a free bowl because I’m there all the time. I’ve definitely visited more than five times in the past 60 days, which is the amount the current Foursquare mayor of the restaurant has been.

So why aren’t I the mayor of my favorite Thai restaurant? Because I don’t use Foursquare.

Foursquare depicts an incomplete picture of traffic for a couple of reasons:

  • Not everyone participates.
  • The check-in requires the manual act of checking in.

This is unlike Placeme, a free mobile app that doesn’t require check-ins. It’s continually running, continually tracking the places you visit. It’s an app that’s always capturing data without the user having to lift a finger.

That’s the direction healthcare apps are headed. Technology is getting so advanced and automated that the barrier to collecting certain types of data is becoming lower and lower.

Automated data tracking
Apps that help patients store and analyze personal data will prove to be extremely beneficial, especially to patients with chronic conditions. For example, diabetic patients manage their blood glucose levels through a careful combination of food, exercise and medication. Instead of using a paper and pen to regularly record and analyze which variables influence their levels, diabetics can now monitor blood glucose levels on mobile devices.

The iBGStar for the iPhone, which was cleared for use in the U.S. in December, can help patients give themselves and their doctors a more complete picture of their health than they could by writing it down. The small meter plugs right into the phone and records blood glucose data on the app so it can be analyzed over time. Users can then email the information to their doctor or nurse.

Wellness trackers
Diabetics aren’t the only ones who want a more detailed look at their bodies. Quantified Selfers (QS) emphasize tracking everything from exercise to productivity to spiritual well-being, all in the pursuit of better health. QSers now enjoy apps that not only digitize their personal data, but capture it Placeme-style — virtually without any effort.

  • The Withings armband measures blood pressure and connects to an iOS device. The recorded systolic and diastolic blood pressure readings can be emailed to physicians and automatically synched with a personal health record.
  • The Zeo sleep quality monitor is a headband that tracks sleep stages throughout the night and then wirelessly sends information to a smartphone. The app helps users to see what factors (such as an apple a day) impact their sleep. Anderson Cooper loves it.
  • The FitBit personal sensor is designed to be worn 24/7 in order to track steps, distance walked or ran and sleep quality. The online application allows users to track daily progress and compare to others in their age and fitness range, and the personal profile integrates with workout and meal information on smartphones.

Future of health apps
In the future, imagine ingestible sensors that automatically transmit information on diabetics’ blood glucose levels to their smartphones. We’re not there yet, but as technology rapidly improves to help us better capture data automatically, this could be where we’re headed.

For many QS-ers, this sounds like heaven. Others range from feeling slightly to extremely creeped out by the idea.

“And yet, this ‘creepy’ model is the future,” wrote Phil Baumann, founder of Health Is Social, in a blog post. “It represents the technological and cultural arc that social software is throwing us. We can fight it (and should in order to flesh out the nuances so we can ensure safety) but in the long-run we shall have to accept the trend and work accordingly.”

Technology is getting good enough to make this kind of future possible. But how many people will opt not to be a part of it? Just like I opt not to participate in Foursquare or Placeme.

This post first appeared on mHIMSS. 

Health 2.0