PARK, Md. — Your phone knows everything about you —
how much you walk, talk and what level of Candy Crush
you’re stuck on — but soon it could be spilling
secrets to your doctor.
and more physicians are prescribing apps that help track
their patients’ illnesses through information
collected by their smartphones.
trend) just seems to be exploding," said Seth S.
Martin, a Pollin cardiovascular prevention fellow at
Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. "With the
widespread use now of smartphones, it’s a really
exciting opportunity to help people live healthier
like Ginger.io and those developed by the Center for
Behavioral Intervention Technologies (CBITs) at
Northwestern University collect data through smartphones
and web activity and relay that information to
healthcare providers — without the patient needing to
lift a finger. This, they argue, enriches the healthcare
process by integrating technology and primary care.
is most apparent with the app Ginger.io, which is
currently invite only — it’s being tested in larger
hospital systems before it expands to the public — and
deals with a small number of specific diseases like
diabetes and ulcerative colitis.
to their website, Ginger.io "works in the
background to collect data about your movement, call,
and texting patterns. Once the application has gathered
enough data to understand your behavior patterns, we
will provide you with health insights and alerts."
alerts range from condition-specific health tips to
insights into the patient’s own health patterns.
forms an automated diary of your life," said Anmol
Madan, co-founder and CEO of Ginger.io. "The idea
is to provide support to patients and families."
collecting two forms of data — nicknamed passive and
active — Ginger.io attempts to paint as full of a
picture as possible from the data collected by a person’s
phone. The app asks patients to fill out
condition-specific surveys about their symptoms and
well-being (this is active data) while also collecting
information from the sensors in the phone regarding
calling and texting patterns as well location data (this
is passive data.)
data is then sent to a patient’s primary care
physician. They use the collected data to monitor a
patient’s day-to-day behavior, flare-ups and unusual
patterns in communication — are you making longer
calls? Maybe not moving around as much as normal?
allows for faster and more accurate intervention should
a health condition head south.
to Ginger.io, CBITs works to develop apps for
smartphones, websites, text messages and even virtual
so many things that technology makes available to
us," said Jennifer Duffecy, associate director of
intervention development at CBITs.
of the apps in development at CBITs involve mental
health — especially making sure people with mental
illnesses stay on their medication. One described by
Duffecy dealt specifically with antidepressants.
often feel no immediate effects when starting an SSRI
— a common anti-depressant that changes the balance of
serotonin levels in the brain — and stop taking it.
app from CBITs tracks whether or not the patient took
their medication — adding an accountability aspect —
while also tracking any side-effects felt by the
their focus is mainly on mental health, Duffecy said,
other research has looked at apps for insomnia, chronic
pain, cancer survivorship and various transplants.
is also developing an app specifically to monitor and
improve veterans’ ability to cope with stress. The app
is specifically tailored to veterans with serious mental
illnesses who seek care in community-based mental health
most effective way to use (health tracking apps) is to
integrate these systems with others — linking
information in real time with feedback that is designed
by the patient’s physician or a specialist. But doing
this in a very reputable and patient friendly
manner," Martin said.
and colleagues at Johns Hopkins University plan to begin
a study later this year that uses smartphone apps and
bluetooth data to monitor patients.
in the deluge of health-tracking apps available, few
have undergone any moderation to ensure the validity and
reliability of the science behind the app, Martin said.
Few studies have been conducted that analyzed the
effectiveness of apps like Ginger.io that employ total
integration of technology and primary care.
the clinic of the future will be very much
app-based," Martin said. "There will be some
optimal combination of app-based, home based care with
actual face-to-face clinic visits. (But) right now it’s
way, way too early to make any definitive
important, Duffacy noted, is the need to ensure that
people who download any health related apps actually
integrate the technology into their everyday life.
only work if people use them," Duffacy said.
COMBATS OBESITY WITH BETTER MATH
Northwestern University professor is taking a stab at
making activity recording apps on smartphones more
accurate — by employing more sophisticated math.
like Moves or Argus that track exercise and movement are
more popular than ever, but don’t capture data all
that accurately in certain situations.
movement-tracking apps lose a bit of accuracy when the
smartphone is carried in a bag or a pocket. Konrad
Kording, an associate professor at Northwestern
University, and colleagues have developed a more
accurate algorithm for activity recording apps.
algorithm allows apps to predict the location of a
smartphone throughout the day — be it on a belt, in a
bag, or in your hand — which increases the accuracy of
health tracking apps.
wanted to see how well activity recognition could
tolerate what people did in their everyday life,"
Kording said. While the algorithm wouldn’t be
integrated in current app technology in the immediate
future, it should help improve the accuracy of these
health monitoring apps.
research is a part of the Center for Behavioral
Intervention Technologies (CBITs) at Northwestern
University. Opened in 2011, researchers at CBITs work to
develop apps for a variety of tech platforms, including
smartphones, websites, text messages, even virtual
a more accurate app may aid in the fight against
inactivity and obesity, it is just a small step.
the state’s efforts to curb rising obesity rates,
Maryland adults continue to get heavier — 24.9 percent
of adults were obese in 2006, while 27.9 percent were
obese in 2010. However, Maryland’s obesity rate has
yet to hit the nationwide 35.7 percent, according to the
Centers for Disease Control.