Is health tracking unhealthy?

With the race towards creating the next generation of wearable technology well underway, the tech industry has taken a particular interest in the ability to monitor personal health. With a plethora of activity trackers, health checking apps and Apple seemingly set to integrate health monitors in both iOS8 and its rumoured ‘iWatch’, are we on the verge of creating a healthier society or simply a generation of hypochondriacs?

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On the face of it, activity trackers and health monitors offer us a highly beneficial piece of tech. They provide a useful insight into our lifestyle, and prompt us to swap sedentary behaviour for more active pursuits. For instance Nike Fuelband tracks movement and provides real-time feedback, encouraging us to move regularly and reach activity goals. However more recently we’ve seen an expansion in the capability of this sort of technology. Take Wello, for example, a health monitoring device which attaches to your smartphone and doubles up as a case.


Wello allows the user to apply their fingers to four sensors and within seconds get a full read out of their vitals. Blood pressure, ECG, heart rate, blood oxygen & temperature are all recorded, and with an attachment you can even measure lung capacity. It’s an incredible advance in technology, and I must admit that when I first saw it I was sold on the idea. Yet on further reflection, I find myself asking why? What purpose does it serve? At first I wondered if it offered advice based on the data readouts. A rise in temperature, for example, would prompt me to visit a GP. The answer, however, is no it doesn’t. On investigation I found that Wello doesn’t offer any sort of medical advice and rightly so. Therefore the only real purpose it serves is one of self-interest and curiosity, which you could say almost borders on morbid fascination.

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But for someone like me with no medical training, what does a blood oxygen level of 25 mEq/L mean? Am I dying? For some, the first port of call would be Google, and we all know the dangers of self-diagnosis. You can go from having a tickly cough to being riddled with every disease on the planet, and before long you’re at your GP explaining how you have tuberculosis. If we see an increase in popularity of these devices, are we going to see a correlation of people sat in surgeries with heart rates that fluctuated a few beats last Tuesday? Anxiety disorders are already affecting nearly 1 in 5 adults in the UK, so do we need to be putting further unnecessary strain, not only on ourselves, but on our NHS?

Wello isn’t the only example, though. I recently started using a sleep tracking app to monitor my sleep patterns, purely out of curiosity. The app works by using the inbuilt accelerometer to track your movement throughout the night and can derive the quality of your night’s sleep, albeit not to a medical grade of accuracy, something the makers are quite clear on. About halfway through my first week, I woke up one morning feeling refreshed after what I considered to be a good night’s sleep, to find my tracker telling me my quality of sleep was 46%. Aside from asking the question ’46% of what exactly?’, I found myself questioning whether I actually had had a good night’s sleep. This, again, could potentially lead those more susceptible down the road towards health anxiety.

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So is there a solution? Having said all this, I still see these devices revolutionising the way we not only analyse, but also diagnose and treat patients. The key is that the data is analysed by medically-trained professionals, and nobody else. We should be designing devices that track all the data that Wello does, but sends that data straight to your GP with no visibility to the user. This offers huge potential for medical advances. Your doctor could be alerted of any abnormalities that require their attention and arrange a check-up. Imagine visiting your GP with a temperature and for them to be able to see exactly when your temperature changed, and make a diagnosis accordingly. Or what about tracking post-hospitalisation recovery? That coupled with the recent government plans to share medical records, could allow for in-depth research that could potentially improve how we treat certain illnesses.

We’re seeing so much exciting innovative technology in connected devices and health monitoring, but we’re yet to see a really innovative experience. With Google recently revealing Android Wear and Apple launching its HealthKit ahead of a potential iWatch launch, are we about to see a revolution in healthcare? Time will tell, but we’re not there….yet.