Will More Data Make Us Healthier?

Beatrice J. Doty

Amazon wants you to wear a tracking device that makes 3D scans of your body and analyzes when your voice sounds stressed.

Welcome to the possibly useful, possibly creepy future of health care.

Amazon’s new tracking wristband and accompanying app show how body-worn health technologies have evolved in the past few years. What used to be relatively simple gadgets that logged how many steps people took have morphed into holistic systems that promise to guide us and our doctors to improve our health, and maybe even spot illnesses like COVID-19 before we know we’re sick.

The principle behind these technologies is that collecting more data will help make us healthier. The message from experts I spoke with is that there’s potential in that idea, but it hasn’t been fulfilled yet.

For now, health and fitness tracking systems can be very useful for some people — but not for everyone. I know people who swear by their fitness trackers to help manage their weight, and others who exercise more because the Apple Watch gives them kudos for doing so.

One big limitation of health devices, though, is that many people don’t know what to do with the data they see about their heart rate or how many hours they slept.

“We’re not doing a very good job of educating people what to do with that information. That’s the piece that’s missing,” said John Jakicic, director of the Healthy Lifestyle Institute at the University of Pittsburgh.

The companies behind health tracking technologies know this is a problem, and they’re increasingly promising to suggest actions that people — or their physicians — can take from all the data that the tracking gadgets collect.

Amazon said, for example, that its health tracking system might be able to suggest which workout is most effective for someone. Fitbit says its sensors can score your stress level. Amazon, Apple and other companies are also trying to integrate information from their health technologies into electronic medical records. In principle, that means a patient with a heart condition could share daily electrocardiogram readings with her doctor.

But it’s not always clear whether the insights from these health trackers are helpful or accurate. Jessilyn Dunn, a Duke University professor who studies uses of medical data collected from wearable devices, said that researchers usually can’t access or validate the assessments that tech companies are making from people’s data.

Dunn said she was optimistic about the potential of health tracking technologies for clinicians and the rest of us. But she said that the lack of transparency made it difficult to know why a health tracking technology might suggest that someone needed another hour of sleep or could be at risk of a dangerous heart abnormality.

So, if you’re considering buying a health tracking technology, consider what you realistically might get out of it. Will it be helpful to know how much you slept or for Amazon to estimate your stress level from the tone of your voice? Think about whether you trust the company behind the health tracker with sensitive information from your body.

You might find these trackers helpful. But don’t expect them to be miracle cures.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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