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Data collection: good for your health?

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

Data collection is a contentious issue. Over the past 12 months, the morality of data collection has been called into question time and time again, rarely to positive outcome. Personal user data harvested from Facebook was allegedly used to inform aggressively targeted political advertising aimed to subvert the democratic process. Elsewhere, customer profiling that used data which was unwillingly given away was used to target vulnerable individuals to the benefit of those selling loans with extortionate repayment plans. 

We have been giving our data away willingly for many years but often without giving thought to how it is being used. Only in the recent months has the ostensible potential of our data reached the front of our collective conscience. This mindset is a dangerous one: we must not let isolated examples of gross misconduct undermine the true value that data collection offers us. 

The healthcare industry might not immediately spring to mind when confronted with the idea of data collection, but it is a sector that has been utilising data to increasing success. Technologies are beginning to provide genuine healthcare support that is in turn alleviating the pressure that continues to weigh on the NHS. There are various ways, some recently emergent and others well underway, in which our data can be profoundly insightful and vitally important to maintaining good health. 

The industry for health tech has flourished over the last several years. Wearable fitness trackers have been enormously successful for their unobtrusive way of collecting data from the user and presenting it to them in a digestible way. Various devices and corresponding apps can collect data such as heart rate, steps taken, exercise undertaken, time spent sitting vs standing and can make recommendations to the user on this basis. Various wearables and phone apps can monitor sleep, or lack thereof and advises users on how to make a lifestyle change to improve their quality of sleep. Similarly, cutting edge technologies in the world of skincare, such as the HiMirror, are allowing users insight into the condition of their skin by monitoring the face and providing advice on tackling issues like dark spots, which can be indicative of dehydration or a poor diet. 

These technologies are providing users with information about their own health and wellbeing in a way that is simply unprecedented. The ability to digitally track one’s progress over time, and consider how certain lifestyle changes have impacted that development is enormously valuable. It has never been easier for an individual to take control of their own health and monitor it themselves. That is to say, of course, that traditional healthcare cannot be replaced by these gadgets but they are empowering us to take a more proactive stance. 

However, beyond the realm of data that specifically pertains to the health of the user, there are ways that other kinds of data can have a positive impact on our health. Smart home tech companies such as Howz use sensors to track movement and energy use in the home to provide information on the lifestyle habits of elderly inhabitants. They use this data to identify patterns made by occupants and build up a picture of that routine. It can alert a user when a routine starts to deteriorate, which can be indicative of a decline in health or oncoming frailty. It can also be accessed by relatives who just want to check in using the app that Mum has had her morning cup of tea!  

The potential for such insight is enormous. There are so many different types of organisations who already have access to data that could provide insight into the condition of peoples health. Theoretically, your energy provider has the capacity to let you know that you have had the heating on for a while despite the warm weather – perhaps indicative of reducing resilience or even an infection. Your regular supermarket has the capacity to let you know that your usual routine of doing your weekly shop on Monday and popping in again at the weekend has been replaced by sporadic visits spread apart, perhaps indicative of an unwillingness to go out and get to the shops. Your mobile phone provider has the capacity to see that you haven’t left the house in over a week. On first impression, it may seem intrusive for corporations to be making such assumptions from data but if the application of the insight was purely motivated by looking after the well-being of people, particularly the elderly, it seems like a reasonable proposition. 

Of course, underpinning all these technological and data-based methods of healthcare improvement is the actual medical system itself which could also do with a digital revamp. One of the most crucial ways that data collection can reshape the healthcare industry on a wider space is in the way that each person’s medical record is maintained. We are able to harvest information on our wellbeing from a wider and more diverse range of sources than ever before, whether it be our energy use or a step counter and its important all this information is considered. 

In order for a medical professional to be able to make a fully informed decision with a patient, they should be made privy to as much information as the patient is comfortable with. Each patient’s medical record could be something that can be added to by more than just their local GP. Imagine, for example, that a private doctor or physiotherapist, your carer or your personal trainer also being able to feed into that medical record to provide extra detail. This could have a profound impact on the way that decisions are made.  The technology of shared records is moving at pace, but systems to authenticate an individual and verify their credentials to input into a record remains a challenge.  Validation that the data entered is accurate and objective presents a fantastic opportunity for innovations such as block chain. 

Ultimately, data collection in regard to healthcare is all about providing more useful information on an individual’s wellbeing rather than just more information.  Shaping the information shared in relation to your need requires you to be in control of your data and who sees it.  Exploiting alternative data sources could add real value and context to a set of presenting symptoms and enable holistic management so vital for those with multi-morbidities or the ageing population.  With our health service under considerable pressure, its important that we take a proactive approach to healthcare and work towards preventing conditions that need not develop. Technology can help us do this, and its important that we do not let our hesitations with sharing data on a wider level prevent us from letting that happen.

Louise Rogerson, COO of Howz (opens in new tab)

Image Credit: Everything Possible / Shutterstock  

Louise is COO of Howz. She is a chartered neurophysiotherapist and has worked in the NHS for over 18 years.