Patients, doctors should work together to harness data from health apps

By Mike Sherry, HCF guest blogger and KHI News Service journalist

Headlines about the national security apparatus have served as a reminder that our digital lives say a lot about who we are as individuals.

Some may view this dimly when it involves government workers sifting through cell phone records. But people who study the science of data have coined a new phrase to describe how our electronic footprints can drive positive health outcomes.

They call it the quantified self (QS), as explained in a recent academic article by Melanie Swan of MS Futures Group in Palo Alto, Calif.

Futurist Jonathan Peck forwarded the piece to me when we discussed health data.

QS addresses the increasing ability of individuals to monitor their own physiology as they go about their daily lives.

With monitors becoming less and less intrusive, it’s possible to track everything from our heart rate to our sleep pattern.

Additionally, Swan said, one count has tallied approximately 40,000 smart phone health applications. A QS website, she noted, lists more than 500 self-tracking tools.

Armed with this technological wizardry, we can (presumably) modify our behavior when we stray into danger zones.

“Once equipped with QS devices,” Swan wrote, “an individual body becomes a knowable, calculable, and administrable object.”

One example of the potential power of “early warning signals,” she said, is research showing that sleep quality and blood glucose levels can signal an elevated risk for diabetes.

But cardiac monitoring highlights one of the biggest hurdles to realizing the full power of QS, Swan wrote.

A heart monitor that takes about 250 samples per second, she said, generates nine gigabytes of data per person per month. That amount of data would eat up 5 percent of the space on my computer hard drive.

The problem, basically, is that these datasets are getting too big to adequately store and analyze.

“A classic big data science problem,” she wrote, “is extracting signal from noise.”

What good is it, for instance, if the signs of a heart attack lie buried in a dataset?

She said establishment types, too, are wary of the accuracy of data collected outside the research or clinical environment.

In an interesting point, however, she noted that data could be useful even if it’s not gathered, say, as part of a randomized clinical trial.

“I hear people talk about the fact we need to be able to design new techniques and technologies to be able to use that data,” said Helen Connors, executive director of the Center for Health Informatics at the University of Kansas Medical Center. “But we also have to have a shift in attitudes so that providers really accept consumers as partners in their care and realize that data is useful.”

She and Laura McCrary, executive director of the Kansas Health Information Network, agreed QS meshes with the push to engage patients more in their own care.

“If patients don’t have access to their own health information,” McCrary said, “they are not going to change their behavior, and that is really where we have been.”


This article is a good reminder that until many patient and provider attitudes change, we won’t make use of tools at our disposal. The point about big data and extracting a signal from noise is an important one. Maybe providers need to get more involved in the development of apps so that resulting products are more useful for them.

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HCF's Local Health Buzz Blog aims to discuss health and health policy issues that impact the uninsured and underserved in our service area. To submit a blog, please contact HCF Communications Officers, Jennifer Sykes, at



About Bridget's Blog

Bridget McCandless

Bridget McCandless, MD, MBA, FACP, HCF President/CEO

Bridget McCandless is the President/CEO of the Health Care Foundation of Greater Kansas City and is a Board Certified Internal Medicine Specialist with an interest in chronic disease management and poverty medicine. She shares her thoughts and perspectives on health and policy issues that impact the health of the community as a whole.

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