Can the Quantified Self Deliver Sustainable Health Benefits?

August 2016Yoshimi Fukuoka

Wearable devices and apps are everywhere. They have become smaller, smarter and easier to operate, and they are driving a movement known as “the Quantified Self,” in which people almost obsessively track and analyze their personal health information.

Like so many others, I am fascinated by the potential health benefits of the Quantified Self. I have monitored my activity every day for a decade, as consistently as I brush my teeth. Yet as a health scientist, especially one watching the relentless marketing of these devices, I have to ask: Can they have a lasting impact on health behaviors? Can they truly contribute to preventing the surge of chronic illness?

When I presented my first research proposal in this area, there was considerable skepticism from my fellow scientists about the value of wearable devices. Yet in the past decade, both scientists and the general public have leaped on this bandwagon. The result has been a proliferation of devices, many of them untested, and a proliferation of challenges that many of us did not originally anticipate.

One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the enormous difficulty of sustaining lifestyle changes that improve health. While my research and that of others has demonstrated that these devices can replicate some important in-person interventions that inspire behavior change, to date there has been little evidence that these wearable devices have made any difference in sustaining these lifestyle changes. Now, however, there are some who believe that if we can effectively harness the explosion of data facilitated by these devices, we can have a real and lasting impact.

In short, in this era of big data, wearable devices collect data remotely and continuously – all day, every day – delivering it to both the individuals themselves and, in some cases, health care providers. Yet the vast majority of health scientists, including myself, have not fully embraced big data’s potential, particularly its ability to inform and shape more personalized interventions. Applying machine learning and predictive analytics to real-time data from these devices could fundamentally change the way we design and deliver lifestyle interventions. Behavioral algorithms rooted in this data can optimize and automate personalized treatments.

Getting there, however, is hard work because it demands that we emerge from our siloed areas of expertise. If we want to truly unlock the potential of wearable devices and the Quantified Self, as researchers we have to seek open collaborations with diverse experts, including behavioral scientists, clinicians, computer scientists, information technology (IT) professionals, and patients and families. This is how innovative ideas will emerge to accelerate discovery and, ultimately, the development of new interventions to help fight the surge of preventable chronic illness.