Big Brother tech might be America's last hope for health

Wearable monitors, big data, e-commerce technologies, and pro-health propaganda may fix U.S. health care

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The revolution in health data now available

Partners HealthCare's Kvedar notes that there's much more data to be used than a person's medical history -- more accessible now as the industry converts to electronic health records -- and monitored health conditions, including the new generation of portable and wearable connected sensors.

Genetic data is now cheap, costing about $1,000 for a full genetic workup on a person and much less to look for markers for specific predispositions. That genetic data could make a huge difference in the feedback and steering given to people, because it will better ground the analytics behind them to reflect the person's body.

For example, there five types of genetic predispositions to obesity, all of which affect how a person needs to avoid weight gain, what level of extra weight is of concern, and how to lose excess weight. "Imagine if we knew that in utero," says Partners HealthCare's Kvedar.

Beware the technological silver bullet

Technologists tend to see the solutions to problems in technological terms, just as doctors have tended to see the health issues in America as a medical problem. Deloitte's Greenspun warns against that tunnel vision.

For example, he cites a hospital that decided to text aged patients when it was time to take medication. "That's not a technology most of them use routinely. A smart egg timer would have been a better option." The hospital didn't even bother to text patients to see who responded and learn who might actually engage with a messaging-based reminder system, yet surely some team members have parents who don't notice text messages or voicemail messages, much less know how to read them. "Adoption of mobile tech is very unevenly distributed."

Likewise, Greenspun warned people about depending on social media monitoring to track health issues. It can be useful in some cases, such as the identification of flu patterns; James Fowler, a professor at University of California at San Diego, found that monitoring tweets and Facebook conversations for references to flu symptoms could accurately predict flu outbreaks two weeks before they occurred. Such social sensing is all but certain to be useless in others, such as tracing outbreaks of socially transmitted diseases, drug use, or other activities that few people want to air in public. "Be careful about notion of big data health analysis from social networks," Greenspun says.

Enlightened change -- or an unholy alliance?

Mixing tech in equal parts with medicine and propaganda -- er, behavioral change coupled with realistic, tested user expediences (the user involvement so often lacking in technology efforts) may reverse the horrifying decline in Americans' health. But because people seem unwilling or unable to direct the change to healthy behavior themselves, we may see well-meaning medical providers and governments step in for our own sake.

We'll see less-beneficent companies step in as well, redlining "irresponsible" people out of the system, as health insurers have done for decades and have been forced to stop doing with Obamacare. They're using the behavioral-modification technologies to exploit the populace with overpriced, unnecessary products and potions. It could be an unholy alliance of Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue.

This article, "Big Brother tech might be America's last hope for health," was originally published at Read more of Galen Gruman's Smart User blog. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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