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Technology Healthcare

When it's Too Much: Navigating the Internet and Quantified Health Data

By Adam Rantz

Technology is providing patients and their care team with unprecedented access to information through medical websites, wearable devices and mobile apps. Yet, all of this information can be overwhelming, if not concerning, for patients who are overly focused on achieving a sense of perfect health. Knowledge does not necessarily translate to wisdom when it comes to healthcare, so it's a good idea to find a balance between informed and obsessed. 

Finding and acting on the right information should involve a medical professional.

Internet Searches
We've all done it: We have a new freckle or a bit of a sore throat and it's straight to WebMD to put a name to what ails us so we can figure out what actions to take. The problem with most of the symptom searches that I've ever done, is that the outcome is always way too grim and usually involves some form of cancer. While online tools can help us decide when it's time to go to the doctor, it appears that most of the health web searching we do is still related to specifics on illnesses, which, if improperly interpreted can do more harm than good. 

In a recent article on Health.com, 4 of the top 9 Google searches on health topics are related to illnesses (2 are about pregnancy and 3 are about nutrition or food topics). I am all about technology and using the internet for easy access to information, but this article reveals to me that we are predisposed to self diagnose and treat our illnesses without the opinion of a trained medical professional. An office visit copay when compared to the convenience of an internet search is definitely a factor that could keep a patient out of a doctor's office. It's fine to do this if you are just trying to find out if you are contagious or want to know how long your already diagnosed illness will last, as the top questions of the year were, but do not search and expect to find an answer that is perfectly tailored to your health.  

 Wearable Devices and Apps
Just about every major technology company has released a wrist or ankle device and mobile app that is capable of tracking just about every vital sign and activity metric such as blood pressure or calories burned. Wearable devices and apps display accurate, real-time information that can provide the positive feedback, or early warning signs, on the vital statistics that matter most to a person's health. It is not too far of a stretch to the imagination that these devices will soon be incorporated into sports equipment to alert coaches and training staff when an athlete is fatigued or on the brink of a serious medical episode.

Perhaps I am too close to technology, but I only see a few drawbacks to these devices and they they are only concerned with the people to which they are attached. Obsessive behavior may be cultivated as people try to reach their targeted vitals, and that could then lead to unnecessary medical expenses as people react to every anomaly that otherwise would have rightfully gone unnoticed. Still, there is a stigma around illness and disease that leads people to want to keep their data private, and although deidentified (meaning no possible way to associate the data with the individual), most of the data recorded on these devices and apps is stored in the company's database. It is usually the right of these companies to do what they will with that information, and that gives patients a sense of helplessness about their online data that is not exactly necessary. 

The takeaway from all of this is that people are just beginning to embrace the power of self reported medical data, but one part of this equation that will always be necessary is a clinical mind to read and interpret the data to help make the best decisions available to promote the best outcomes. Currently the best, and most secure, way for patients to get this data to their care team on a regular basis is through a patient portal or direct mail service. Look into any health tracking device for the available output before making your purchase so you can be sure that the data will make it to your doctor where it can have the greatest impact to your health outcomes.

by Adam Rantz

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