On Mobile Health Tracking

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The following was written by Risha Bera, a member of the 2014 Medicine X Student Leadership Program. Risha is currently a medical student at University of California at Irvine.

Bera-Risha-UC-Irvine-School-of-MedicineSelf-tracking health in a mobile application offers an interesting way for healthy and ill patients to understand their personal health. Kyra Bobinet described how one woman used self-tracking to understand how her lack of interest in ice cream and other symptoms led her to identify a casein protein intolerance. Another speaker reinforced the idea that self-tracking is a great tool for trying to understand what is happening when you don’t feel as well as you are used to. So what ultimately makes a great mobile health tracker?

Many self-tracking applications are built to either collect data automatically, or require user input. For example, a pedometer usually will not require the user to input miles walked, but a period tracker requires the user to report on the quantity and quality of their experience. The user is usually able to retrieve that data, but only after the application has summarized the data according to its design. Gary Wolf,  co-founder of The Quantified Self and a contributing editor at Wired magazine, brought up the need for users to be able to access raw data, because that data belongs to the user, not to the application. However, few if any legal or ethical laws exist that require applications to release raw data to users.

Another feature of a great mobile application may be its own recognition of its shortcomings. Much of the time, the application promises to achieve a certain goal, and when that goal is not met, the user becomes frustrated and abandons the device. What if the application could apologize for its mistakes? Then the user might have a better dialogue with the application regarding the user’s expectations, and the application’s shortcomings. For example, instead of matching the data gathered from the user with a binary goal (did the user meet or not meet his goal?), the application would describe a process (what was effective for this user to meet his goal?).

With the constant release of new and improved mobile applications, it is important to remember that there is no end-all application. Rather, using applications is a process of constant improvement as the user discovers how to meet his needs and explore his interests through technology.

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