The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health news center today publicized a journal article by a team of individuals that includes many with whom I've worked. Figured I should say that to start, so that if anyone questions my incentives to be easy or hard on this article, they will know how I relate to the authors. In any case, the team reviewed evidence related to whether consumer electronics help to improve patient health. You can find the news center story here.
In any case, what these researchers found was that personal informatics tools can be helpful and there is no evidence that they are harmful. While I do not often pull full paragraphs from the sources I am citing here are some definitions that will help:
"Consumer health informatics applications are defined as any electronic tool, technology or electronic application designed to interact directly with consumers, with or without the presence of a health care professional, and that provides or uses individualized (personal) information to help a patient better manage his or her health or health care."
"Personalized informatics tools can include applications such as online health calculators, interactive computer programs to aid decision making, SMS text and email messages, which can be applied to a variety of clinical conditions, including cancer, smoking, diabetes mellitus, physical activity and mental health disorders."
The authors clearly indicated that there is no evidence of economic benefit or harm, and it all seems quite harmless. So, why write about this?
I have a concern. These tools seem to be able to make a difference now. However, I wonder about the future. Why? I can think of any number of times that I have been fascinated with a new tool (of any sort) and eventually found it to be overwhelming (perhaps Facebook?), or not as useful as it originally was, or simply no longer novel. It seems like human nature sometimes just to move on to the next thing. Think of the number of people now who complain about how much email they get when it was supposed to make our lives easier.
So, what seems like a good thing now because it makes it easier and quicker to get the information (thereby reducing the cost of getting information and thereby reducing the constraints on staying healthy) may turn out to be a fleeting change. This may be particularly true if in the process of using a tool that does not require the presence of a health care professional, the involved professionals lose site of the inherently hands on nature of patient care. If that happens, once a person tires of a new technology, the need for continued information may be there but the competing demands may grow, the tools may no longer seem as interesting, and the long term consequences may be unclear.
Don't get me wrong. As a fan of email, my iPhone, electronic music production, Facebook, and blogging, I love technology. I just worry about too much reliance on a set of tools that may not live up to expectations once they are treated as "been there--done that" kind of technologies.
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