Health IT

Are we headed toward the over-quantified self?

Personal health monitoring is a big part of the future of healthcare, according to popular opinion. Sensors, mobile devices and apps are generating data at lightning speed, enabling people to be better informed and take more control of their healthcare, says the quantified self movement. But when does patient monitoring cross the line from enabling and empowering people to bombarding them with data?


I recently heard that BMW is working with researchers on embedding vital sign monitors in vehicles, like heart rate monitors and skin conductance. In order for these technologies to be widely accepted, they need to be integrated into consumers’ lives, and seventeen million Americans buy cars each year, so why not put them there? Right?

Not necessarily. Bombarding people with their own data isn’t necessarily going to make them care about it, and no matter how seamlessly it fits, it’s not going to do people any good unless they care about it. So the car you that your heart rate rose at the same time you slammed on the brakes when you got cut off on the highway. Is that data really helping anyone know themselves?

The thing I fear is that the digital health revolution is giving fuel to the “technology for technology’s sake” fire and sometimes forgetting to ask the “so what?” question. My computer mouse can measure my blood pressure and my webcam can take my pulse, but … so what?

If someone is monitoring those kinds of vitals, it’s likely for a good reason — because they have a chronic condition or are actively trying to meet certain health goals — and have probably already integrated tracking into their lives in a more natural way. Look at how many existing apps and devices measure people’s heart rate, calories consumed and burned, how many hours they slept, how many steps they’ve taken, and where and when their asthma attack occurred.

Meanwhile, Ford is working with Medtronic and WellDoc to embed self-monitoring mobile technology into cars to help drivers with diabetes manage their conditions. Although this seems slightly more useful than the general vital signs monitoring in cars, it’s still left me wondering how far we’ll go in getting people to try to use their biometric data, not to mention all the other questions it raises, like could that information be transmittable to a smartphone, or to a doctor’s EMR? Won’t it cause distraction and feed even more into “cyberchondria?”

The heart of the quantified self movement is empowering patients with their own data, but some of the startups and research projects I’ve seen lately make me think that we are overestimating the total number of people who want it and know what to do with it.

[Photo by Flickr user JanetR3]