Just as the little mobile wireless devices radically transformed our day-to-day lives, so will such devices have a seismic impact on the future of health care. It’s already taking off at a pace that parallels the explosion of another unanticipated digital force — social networks.
Take your electrocardiogram on your smartphone and send it to your doctor. Or to pre-empt the need for a consult, opt for the computer-read version with a rapid text response. Having trouble with your vision? Get the $2 add-on to your smartphone and get your eyes refracted with a text to get your new eyeglasses or contact lenses made. Have a suspicious skin lesion that might be cancer? Just take a picture with your smartphone and you can get a quick text back in minutes with a determination of whether you need to get a biopsy or not. Does your child have an ear infection? Just get the scope attachment to your smartphone and get a 10x magnified high-resolution view of your child’s eardrums and send them for automatic detection of whether antibiotics will be needed. Worried about glaucoma? You can get the contact lens with an embedded chip that continuously measures eye pressure and transmits the data to your phone. These are just a few examples of the innovative smartphone software and hardware — apps and “adds” technology — that have been developed and will soon be available for broad use.
“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Lord Kelvin
“Asking science to explain life and vital matters is equivalent to asking a grammarian to explain poetry.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Of course the quantified self movement with its self-tracking, body hacking, and data-driven life started in San Francisco when Gary Wolf started the “Quantified Self” blog in 2007. By 2012, there were regular meetings in 50 cities and a European and American conference. Most of us do not keep track of our moods, our blood pressure, how many drinks we have, or our sleep patterns every day. Most of us probably prefer the Taleb to the Lord Kelvin quotation when it comes to living our daily lives. And yet there are an increasing number of early adopters who are dedicated members of the quantified self movement.
“They are an eclectic mix of early adopters, fitness freaks, technology evangelists, personal-development junkies, hackers, and patients suffering from a wide variety of health problems. What they share is a belief that gathering and analysing data about their everyday activities can help them improve their lives.”
According to Wolf four technologic advances made the quantified self movement possible:
“First, electronic sensors got smaller and better. Second, people started carrying powerful computing devices, typically disguised as mobile phones. Third, social media made it seem normal to share everything. And fourth, we began to get an inkling of the rise of a global superintelligence known as the cloud.”
It’s been said that losing weight is much harder than kicking cigarettes or alcohol. After all, because one doesn’t need to smoke or drink, the offending substances can simply be kept out of sight (if not out of mind). Dieting, on the other hands, involves changing the way a person does something we all must do everyday.
It’s no surprise, then, that reports of problematic doctor interactions with social media are popping up with metronomic regularity. When it comes to the smorgasbord of information coursing through those Internet tubes, increasingly, we all have to eat. And that makes drawing boundaries a challenge.
While most early reports on the perils of social media concerned inappropriate postings by physicians, a new hazard has emerged recently: digital distraction. On WebM&M, the AHRQ-sponsored online patient safety journal that I edit, we recently presented a case in which a resident was asked by her attending to discontinue a patient’s Coumadin. As she turned to her smart phone to enter the order, she was pinged with an invitation to a party. By the time she had RSVPed, she had forgotten about the blood thinner – and neglected to stop it. The patient suffered a near-fatal pericardial hemorrhage.
In a commentary accompanying the case, the impossibly energetic John Halamka, ED doctor and Harvard’s Chief Information Officer, described all of the things that his hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is considering to address this issue. It’s not easy: whereas the hospital owns the Electronic Health Record and can manage access to it, the vast majority of mobile devices in the hospital today – at BI and everywhere else – are the personal property of the users. So Halamka is testing various policies to place some digital distance between the personal and professional, including blocking personal email and certain social networking sites while on duty. He’s even investigating the possibility of issuing docs and nurses hospital-owned mobile devices at the start of shifts, collecting them at the end.