Help or interference? Online and on track with health devices

Help or interference? Online and on track with health devices
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Internet connected devices have revolutionized the world of health behavior tracking. Consumers can measure, automatically record and save their health data to the cloud using a wide range of devices that measure health-relevant indices like weight, blood pressure, physical activity and sleep quality.

Withings, a company that offers many of these connected health devices, is on the market and Google-owned smart home company Nest is in the running as a potential buyer. Adding Withings’ smart-health devices to Google’s smart-home offerings would be a significant step toward Google owning a large share of the Internet of things that the Federal Trade Commission estimates will connect 50 billion devices by 2020.

As a psychologist and professor of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University studying the links between psychology, health behaviors and physical health, I see the promise in connected health for improving physical and psychological well-being at both an individual and public health level.


The first step to changing a health behavior is tracking it.

It is important to know how much you weigh and how much physical activity you get on an average day before you launch into a weight loss program. Although tracking alone does not appear to improve physical health (simply tracking number of steps does not lead to weight loss, for example), tracking combined with feedback, goal setting, or motivational messages is effective.

Health care is also making use of patient-generated health data from Internet connected home monitoring devices as a way of empowering patients and improving communication with providers. The Food and Drug Administration’s strategic policy roadmap explicitly supports improving access to innovative products to advance public health by empowering consumers to take a larger role in their own health promotion.

Researchers are using smartphones and other wearable sensors to predict emotional well-being in daily life. These passive sensors can collect data on heart rate, physical activity, sociability and mobility that, combined, can be used to predict mood and may be able to detect problems before the individual is consciously aware of them.

Such passive sensing approaches are much less burdensome for participants than asking them to repeatedly report, “How do you feel? Who are you with? What are you doing?” In addition, collection of data from passive sensors can be used to automatically provide suggestions for addressing problems that may be surfaced by the devices. For example, data on physiological arousal and stress can trigger a suggestion for a brief meditation exercise or other stress reduction activity.

As a consumer, I use of many of these connected devices, including a Nest thermostat and Withings scale and blood pressure monitor. I like the ability to remotely monitor and adjust the heat even when I’m away from home as well as tracking my weight and blood pressure electronically. Monitoring allows me to get an overview of these statistics and see trends in my own health outcomes.

To be sure, particularly in the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal there is good reason to be wary of having one’s personal data — weight, blood pressure, sleep patterns, location, social interactions and emotion experience — all linked and housed together in the cloud by a single entity like Google.

Although the use of these data is presumably explained under the terms of service that most of us agree to without reading carefully, Google may share this personal information with advertisers through Google adwords, a marketer’s dream for precise targeting of customers.

If your sleep sensor detected snoring, when you open up your Google chrome browser the next day the ads you see may be for snore guard mouthpieces and mattresses that allow your partner to adjust your side of the bed to elevate your head and reduce the noise.

And, of course, there is the more than minimal risk that the data may be viewed and used by someone who is not authorized to see it.

Of course the only way to keep your personal data private is not to be completely off the grid. Instead consumers can make informed decisions about their use of Internet-connected devices and know how available their data will be to outside parties.

It is the obligation of companies like Google to protect their users’ data and be transparent about their processes for doing so.

With a healthy dose of trepidation, I look forward to when I can receive a text message alerting me to the fact that my blood pressure is lower when I’ve had a good night’s sleep and my sleep is better when the thermostat is set at 64 instead of 68. This would be useful, actionable information to improve my health and well-being.

Judith T. Moskowitz is a professor of Medical Social Sciences at Northwestern University and Director of Research at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine. She is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.