One mHealth feature that has exploded in popularity over the last year is that of ‘biometric sensors’ or ‘bioelectronics’.  These are sensors you wear on your body that measure physiologic functions, like heart rate or body temperature, in real time and then feed the information back to you (or your smartphone).  You’ve likely already heard of some of these gadgets, like Fitbit for example, but you may not have heard some of the terms being applied to the use of these sensors like ‘body hacking’ and the ‘quantified self’1-3.  These terms are applied because the sensors are ways of collecting large amounts of data to help us understand ourselves and our bodies.  Clearly, the health-related implications of these devises are enormous and far-reaching.  In fact, a report published earlier this year found that self-tracking led 46% of those surveyed to change their overall approach to their health and 40% to ask their doctors new questions4.

New apps in this field continue to enter the market at break-neck speeds, especially ones that monitor aspects of dietary and fitness habits, and sleep patterns.  The most exciting new developments in this field, however, involve the integration of multiple types of data.  This approach aims to provide a more complete picture of health by linking a number of different measures of bodily functions together.  Take your heart rate, for example.  It can be elevated because you just finished exercising or because you just smoked a cigarette – and these causes have very different meanings and implications.  The personal context adds an additional element that impacts interpretation and implication of the data.  For instance, heart rate may be increased due to low blood sugar in a diabetic patient or, in a non-diabetic patient an increased heart rate in conjunction with a fever could signal an infection.  The point is that knowing a heart rate value alone doesn’t give enough information to help make a decision on whether to take action or not, much less what that action should be.  On the other hand, integrating heart rate with other important health-related information (such as blood sugar levels, body temperature, health history and medication regimen) could potentially save a life.

The other interesting development in this area is the ever-decreasing size of these biometric sensors.  A recent article in Time Magazine about ‘10 big ideas that are changing the world’ featured information about bioelectronics, including those of MC10 whose flexible sensors are so thin they are dwarfed by the width of a human hair5.  Additionally, these new ‘biostamps’ are becoming not only more wearable but also more durable – they are now likened more to a temporary tattoo than a Band-Aid, and are water-proof6.

These are exciting advances in this field, however there are also some important questions and concerns as we move forward with ‘wearable doctors’ and ‘big data about your body’.  In an up-coming blog we will focus on these issues and hurdles, which apply not only to biometric sensors but also to a number of other mHealth-related advances.

References:

  1. Curtis, M. 2013. Your phone will know you’re sick before you do. http://www.cnn.com/2013/02/26/tech/opinion-health-mobile-curtis, accessed on March 11, 2013.
  2. Dewey, C. 2013. Technology raises ‘body hacking’ to a new level. http://www.dailyherald.com/article/20130114/entlife/701149987/?interstitial=1, accessed on March 11, 2013
  3. Dembosky, A. 2011. Invasion of the body hackers. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/3ccb11a0-923b-11e0-9e00-00144feab49a.html#axzz2NLWpYe00, accessed on March 12, 2013
  4. Fox S and Duggan M. 2013. Tracking for Health: A Pew Internet and American Life Project Report. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media/Files/Reports/2013/PIP_TrackingforHealth_PDF.pdf, accessed on March 11, 2013.
  5. Sifferlin A. 2013. Wear your doctor. Time Magazine 181(11): 42.
  6. Gorman, M. 2013. Researchers print biometric sensors directly on skin, make wearable health monitors more durable. http://www.engadget.com/2013/03/11/biometric-sensor-printed-directly-on-skin/, accessed on March 11, 2013.