Health and Happiness

While on my commute home recently, I was fascinated to learn of a new social movement on the rise: the Quantified Self (QS). Originally from California, it’s also known as ‘life-logging’ – a trend where individuals collect and analyse data about their physical or mental state using mobile technology. In contrast to those who worry about Google or Facebook tracking our every virtual move, QS individuals proactively monitor themselves using smartphone apps. The movement has organised meetups for its enthusiasts, and even an annual conference.

The QS movement may sound like a step too far for most of us (we would never be so self-obsessed), and yet monitoring our own finances, calorie intake, running or time usage is comparatively acceptable. And if you consider our habits it’s surely not too far off: just look at the ubiquitous smartphone taking over our lives (when was the last time you turned yours off?), and the number of people updating the world about what they ate for breakfast.

smartphone-generation2

There are two aspects to this which are relevant to local government. First, the much documented rise of mobile technology which allows Councils to engage with residents through their preferred channels (see our previous blog if you’re a Council considering developing your own app).

The second more exciting area is the potential use of this personal data in innovative health and social care solutions. The market for health and lifestyle smartphone technologies  has already exploded from a global turnover of $100 million in 2010 to $4 billion in 2013, and is estimated to reach $26 billion by 2016.

Significant money is being invested in mobile health technologies – there are already apps that perform remote diagnostics using your smartphone: Ucheck can analyse a urine test strip photo, GlucoDock checks diabetics’ blood sugar levels, and Mobile-CliniQ links via Bluetooth to a device that checks your blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol and weight, and relays the results on to medical staff. By monitoring patients and/or calibrating equipment remotely, patients can manage their own conditions in their own homes – meaning less time spent in hospital (i.e. cost savings and better quality of life for patients), freeing staff up to focus where they are most needed.

The preventative aspects of health are just as popular – with thousands of ‘wellness’ apps already catering for our fitness, diet and emotional wellbeing needs. As well as encouraging behaviour change at an individual level, the personal data collected is being mined by academic researchers, and surely has the potential to be used to test effective interventions that could be rolled out further.
Other examples include:
• LSE is using public volunteers to research the links between happiness and environment via IPhone’s app Mappiness
• Smartphone interventions seeking to support people recovering from alcohol/drug dependency without relapse (see here)
• Apps, such as Brain in Hand, which support people with mental health, cognitive or psychological disorders to live independently
• Apps which provide mental health support, for example managing depression by tracking moods.

Given local government’s responsibilities for public health, any preventative or cost-effective interventions are worth keeping an eye on. The potential savings are reportedly huge – according to PwC, by 2017 mobile health services could save $400 billion per year, out of a total annual health expenditure of $6 trillion in the leading industrialised nations of the OECD. However, despite the government’s three million people campaign to promote telecare (http://3millionlives.co.uk/), its cost-effectiveness remains in question and enthusiasm across the country has been mixed. In July 2013, O2 pulled out of the UK market for its telecare products due to low take-up.

We may therefore have to wait a little longer for these technologies to become as widespread in mental health as diabetic self-management is now. The apps market is still unregulated and often untested, raising risks for its consumers and doubts about reliability. There are also understandable fears around privacy rights, data security, ethical issues, accessibility for the elderly, and depersonalisation of care. More research is needed to understand the effectiveness of smartphone interventions, and how far they improve outcomes.

So are these developments exciting innovations or a worrying indictment of modern society? I’m not advocating mobile technology as a panacea or replacement for all personal interaction, but it’s an upcoming new tool to add to the arsenal. Soon the Quantified Self data geeks will not be seen as “a bunch of weirdos”, for as the author of ‘Big Data’ Kenneth Cukier forewarns: “Today, we call it Quantified Self. Tomorrow we are going to call it healthcare. In the future, quantifying ourselves is going to be done not by some people but by all people.”

CP

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