If you’re on a diet or if you’ve decided to embrace a new fitness regimen, you’ve likely downloaded some apps or purchased some type of calorie or activity tracker to monitor your day-to-day efforts. You may be highly motivated to enter every mouthful you eat, every move you make, symptoms or feelings associated with those new habit changes, even sleep patterns. But what is that information really doing for you? More importantly—what's it doing for your doctor?
Your doctor likely nods his head as you hand off days, weeks, months, even a year of data that you’ve printed up, or downloaded from your Fitbit logs or food diary app. He may give it a cursory look or even spend a couple of minutes looking through the data and then…not a whole lot happens. Isn’t your doctor impressed, delighted, dancing around the room with utter joy as he contemplates the wealth of information you’ve tracked and shared?
He may be very happy that you’ve (finally) embraced the lifestyle changes that he suggested were necessary to help you to lose weight, improve your health or reduce your risk of disease. However, according to a new study, he is likely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. Despite the wealth of information these fitness and diet trackers and apps provide, day-to-day tracking can help you to stay motivated but may not be the kind of information that a doctor can use effectively and efficiently.
The survey says…too much?
A new study presented this month at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Computer-supported Cooperation Work and Social Computing in San Francisco, surveyed 211 patients and interviewed 21 doctors, dieticians and other allied health professionals regarding their perspective on how the data that patients track can be used to enhance care. The first observation by the researchers was that patients are bringing in too much information, especially if they are seen on a somewhat infrequent schedule.
The University of Washington researchers, composed of physicians, computer scientists and engineers, had the goal of extrapolating from the 21 health professionals, what specifically would be helpful in terms of tracked data, to the care of the average patient engaged with the technology. It’s clear that there needs to be a collaborative effort between the doctor or allied health professional and patient, to make the tracking effort worth it. The UW researchers noted the need to:
- Develop tools that summarize the data
- Design methods that analyze the data and offer this information to the health professional
- Help clinicians to become aware of available apps and tools that are “best” for the specific patient and the health goals
- Have doctors get involved ahead of time, to explain what information would be specifically helpful to them, and how to track those specific behaviors and collect the data
- Have patients create quick verbal summaries for their healthcare providers, instead of just handing off raw data
- Outline the clear, sensible ways the data can be used by doctor and patient
The researchers focused on two specific conditions for the experiment – IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) and obesity. Since both conditions require tracking of foods being consumed, lifestyle habits, and symptoms being experienced, they were appropriate conditions to follow. When the doctors had very specific data requests, the resulting information that the patients provided offered useful data that could help the doctors with treatment plans and recommendations. So refining the data collection process that the patient was using had a direct and beneficial correlation with the doctor’s assessment and treatment recommendations.
The doctors reported more problems,** when the patients decided on tracking methods and the type of data they would track, opposed to the doctors helping in the decision.**
Patients who get motivated to track information can get really “bitten by the bug” and create bibles of data that doctors cannot use effectively. The patient wants to give a big picture to the doctor, when specific pieces of the data might be far more helpful. Makers of health apps and trackers need to take into account what the healthcare professional needs in order to help the patient reach certain health goals effectively, while staying motivated.
On the other hand, the apps and trackers can be a window to the objective truth for the patient. You can easily forget all the tastes you take during the day, or think you are exercising more than you are. Some very unique trackers may help to identify ongoing fatigue or mood issues. Objective tracking gives you an indisputable diary of information. While you may benefit more from all the meticulous data you’re collecting, your doctor may find summaries and specific pieces of information more useful. If he can convey his needs to you, while you do the more precise record keeping, it’s a win-win for everyone. It’s all about communication and collaboration!