Tech

Tech

The Data Diet: How I Lost 60 Pounds Using A Google Docs Spreadsheet

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The author in early 2010 and mid 2011

I’ve been thinking about how to write this story for a long time. Should it be a book? A blog? A self-help guide? Ever since I realized I’d lost 60 pounds over the course of a year and a half, I knew I wanted to find a way to talk about it, and maybe help others. This is my first public attempt.

A note about the rounding of my roundness: My peak weight, shortly after I began weighing myself in 2010, was 242 lbs. My lowest weight since I started weighing myself has been 183.2 lbs — right in line with where I should be, at 6’3″ tall. I’m sure that I weighed more than 242 lbs. at peak, but frankly, I don’t care that I don’t have the data to account for those last 1.2 lbs.

Adam Davidson’s New York Times Magazine story, “How Economics Can Help You Lose Weight,” helped organize my thinking about how to finally write this. In his story, Adam explains that the rigid protocol his doctor puts him through acts as a kind of economic incentive for him to stay on the diet. I’m highly skeptical that the special liquid meals he can only buy directly through his dietician will help him keep off the weight. I tried all sorts of diets in the many years that I was overweight and though I never tried the Adam’s solution, it doesn’t sound like a recipe for long term success. At least twice, I lost weight and then gained it all, and more, back. (Meta note: I feel terrible writing that. Adam, I wish you the best. Maybe something you read here will help you keep off the weight you have already lost, and congratulations on that difficult achievement.)

Now that I’ve managed to make weight loss sound simple, and sound smug about my success (I’ve stayed within the 183-192-pound range for more than two years now), what’s my big secret? It’s data. Just like I said in the headline, I keep a Google Doc spreadsheet in which I’ve religiously logged my weight every morning for the last three-plus years, starting on January 1, 2010, when I knew I had to do something about my borderline obesity.

The Napsterization of Health Care

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Two weeks ago I had the good fortune to be invited back to the South by Southwest Conference (SXSW) to participate as a judge of a digital healthcare start-up competition. SXSW, which takes place in Austin, TX, is historically an indie music gathering that has evolved into a massive mainstream music conference as well as a monumentally huge film festival, like Sundance times twenty. There are literally hundreds of bands and films featured around town. There has now evolved alongside this a conference called Interactive that draws more than 25,000 people and focuses on technology, particular mobile, digital, and Internet.

In other words, SXSW has become one of the world’s largest gatherings of hoodie-sporting, gadget-toting nerd geniuses that are way too square to be hip but no one has bothered to tell them. Imagine you are sitting at a Starbucks in Palo Alto, CA among 25,000 people who cannot possibly imagine that the rest of the world still thinks the Internet is that newfangled thing used mainly for email and porn. SXSW is a cacophonous melting pot of brilliance, creativity, futuristic thinking, arrogance, self-importance, ironic retro rock and roll t-shirts and technology worship. One small example: very hard to get your hands on a charger for anything other than an iPhone 5 because, seriously, who would have anything else?

What the Story of a Much Talked-About Bay Area Startup Tells Us About the Future of Health IT

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In 2004, I was managing a hospital division at the University of Chicago and our clinic director walked into my office and asked whether I thought that all physicians should be issued with smartphones. My first internal thought was, “Hmm, what’s a smartphone?”

Today, we all know how dramatically different mobile phones are than they were a year or two ago, much less back in 2004. But as the power of mobile technology increases, tech entrepreneurs have taken a lead on challenging old rules that haven’t been discussed in decades. What if the development of the smartphone could give us some clues into the future of healthcare IT?

Recently, I was on a business trip to Boston and met a friend for dinner. As we discussed where to go, I wanted to go someplace close, thinking that getting a taxi would be a pain. My friend pulled out his smartphone and requested a car to pick us up through the car-sharing service Uber. If you haven’t heard of Uber, or Sidecar, or Lyft, the essence is that the headache, the wait, and sometimes the expense of getting a taxi are virtually eliminated.

The #CommonWell Open Discussion Forum

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The EHR vendor lock-in business model is under attack by frustrated physicians and patients and the reality that health care cost and quality are more opaque than ever. Doug Fridsma of ONC politely talks of the need to move from vertical integration of health care services to horizontal integration where patients can choose with their feet. Farzad Mostashari calls for moral behavior and price transparency. The Society for Participatory Medicine says “Gimme My DAM Data” and Patient Privacy Rights asks HHS to allow physicians to prescribe health IT without interference from the institution or the vendor.

The vendors’ response is a charm offensive called CommonWell Health Alliance with a pastel .org website. The website is presumably the official source of information about CommonWell and it lays out the members’ strategy to preserve the vendor lock-in business model for a few $Billion more. Ok, maybe more than a few.

The core of the CommonWell strategy is to avoid giving patients their data in a timely and convenient way.

The State of Self-Tracking

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In January we started asking ourselves, “How many people self-track?”  It was an interesting question that stemmed from our discussion with Susannah Fox about the recent Pew report on Tracking for Health. Here’s a quick recap of the discussion so far.

The astute Brian Dolan of MobiHealthNews suggested that the Pew data on self-tracking for health seems to show constant – not growing – participation. According to Pew, in 2012 only 11% of adults track their health using mobile apps, up from 9% in 2011.

All this in the context of a massive increase in smartphone use. Pew data shows smartphone ownership rising 20% just in the last year, and this shows no signs of slowing down. Those smartphones are not just super-connected tweeting machines. They pack a variety of powerful sensors and technologies that can be used for self-tracking apps. We notice a lot of people using these, but our sample is skewed toward techies and scientists.

What is really going on in the bigger world? How many people are actually tracking?

A few weeks ago ABI, a market research firm, released a report on Wearable Computing Devices. According to the report there will be an estimated 485 million wearable computing devices shipped by 2018. Josh Flood, the analyst behind this report indicated that they estimated that 61% of all devices in wearable market are fitness or activity trackers. “Sports and fitness will continue to be the largest in shipments,” he mentioned “but we’ll start to see growth in other areas such as watches, cameras, and glasses.”

One just needs to venture into their local electronics retailer to see that self-tracking devices are becoming more widespread.

So why are our observations out of synch with the Pew numbers?

A Time Out For Health IT?

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A recent RAND(1) study has concluded that the implementation of health information technology (HIT) has neither effected a reduction in the cost of healthcare nor an improvement in the quality of healthcare. The RAND authors confidently predicted that the widespread adoption of HIT will eventually achieve these goals if certain “conditions” were implemented. I do not believe that there is sufficient scientific data to support the authors’ conclusion nor validate the Federal Government’s decision to encourage the universal installation of “certified” electronic medical records (EMRs.)

As a “geek” physician who runs a solo, private practice and the creator of one of the older EMRs, I believe that I can provide a somewhat unique perspective on the HIT debate which will resonate with a large fraction of private practitioners.

Beyond HIT Operability: Open Platforms Are Key

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I want to begin by sharing well-known information for the sake of comparison. Both the Apple and Google Android platforms welcome the introduction of new and (sometimes) highly valuable functionality through plug-n-play applications built by completely different companies.

You know that already.

Healthcare IT companies welcome you to pay them great sums of money for enhancements to their closed systems. This is on top of substantial maintenance fees that may or may not lead to hoped-for updates in a timely fashion. (With all due respect to the just-announced CommonWell Health Alliance, Meaningful Use does mandate interoperability. The participants are, in effect, marketing what they have to do anyway to try to differentiate themselves from Epic.)

The respective results of these two divergent approaches are probably also familiar to you.

Consumer technology has taken over the planet and altered almost every aspect of our lives. These companies and industries have flourished by knowing what customers will want before those same customers feel even a faint whiff of desire. We are both witnesses to and beneficiaries of dazzling speed-to-solution successes.

Back on planet health IT, the American College of Physicians reports that the percentage of doctors who are “very dissatisfied” with their EHRs has risen by 15 percent since 2010; in a poll, 39 percent said they would not recommend their EHR to colleagues and 38 percent said they would not buy the same system again.

I will argue that the difference between health IT and every other progressive, mature industry is the application of open source, open standards and, most importantly, open platforms. These platforms supporting interoperability and substitutability have enabled Apple and Google—and NOAA weather data, the Facebook Developer Platform, Amazon Web Services, Salesforce, Twitter, eBay, etc.—to drive innovation and competition instead of stifling it. They have created markets where everyone wins—the client, the application developer and the platform company.

The keys to open platforms are application programming interfaces (APIs) through which a platform-building company (i.e., Apple, Google) welcomes the contributions of clients and other companies. The more elegant the API, the more it can support true interoperability.

Why Haven’t Electronic Health Records Made Us Any Healthier?

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Almost 20 years ago close to 4,000 people from 200 companies gathered in San Diego for a conference to discuss the future of health-care information technology. This was before the Web. This was back when computers in physicians’ offices, to the extent they were present at all, were used only for scheduling and billing patients. Paper charts bulged out of huge filing cabinets.

It was one of the first big conferences held by the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society (HIMSS). I was among a grab bag of physicians, technologists, visionaries, engineers and entrepreneurs who shared one idealistic goal: to use information systems and technology to fundamentally change health care.

We didn’t just want to upgrade those old systems. We imagined a future that looked a lot like what we were being promised throughout the economy as it sped into the Internet era. Computers would enable improvements in the practice of medicine—and make it safer, higher quality, more affordable and more efficient—all at the same time. We wanted people to be healthier.

Moving Toward An Identity and Patient Records Locator

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Last week, five health IT vendors came together to announce the CommonWell Health Alliance, a nonprofit focused on developing a national secure network and standards that will:

  1. Unambiguously identify patients
  2. Provide a national, secure record locator service. For treatment purposes, providers can know where a patient’s records are located.
  3. Enable peer-to-peer sharing of patient records requested via a targeted (or directed) query
  4. Enable patients and consumers to withhold consent / authorization for participation in the network

Unambiguous patient identity matters

In banking, without certainty about identity, ATM machines would not give out cash.  And in healthcare without certainty about identity, physicians are working with one hand tied behind their backs.

This problem will never be solved by the Feds. In fact, Congress has restricted any spending on it by the government at all.  Industry working together may be the only practical alternative.

How Should Apps Be Prescribed?

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Should I be prescribing apps, and if so, which ones?

I recently came across this video of Happtique’s CEO Ben Chodor describing his company to Health 2.0’s Matthew Holt. In it, the CEO explains that Happtique is creating a safe and organized space, to make it easy for doctors to prescribe apps and otherwise “engage with patients.”

Because, he says “we believe that the day is going to come that doctors, and care managers, are going to prescribe apps. It’s going to be part of going to the doctor. He’s going to prescribe you Lipitor, and he’s going to give you a cholesterol adherence app.”

He goes on to say that they have a special process to make sure apps are “safe” and says this could be like the good housekeeping seal of approval for apps.

Hmm. I have to admit that I really can’t imagine myself ever prescribing a “cholesterol adherence” app. (More on why below; also found myself wondering what it exactly meant for Happtique to say an app was safe. What would an unsafe cholesterol app look like?)