Pros, Cons of mHealth Fitness Devices in Health Care

June 9, 2015
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The old adage of regular, moderate exercise and a proper diet being among the simplest, surest ways to remain healthy still guides many people in their day-to-day routine. But sometimes a healthy lifestyle isn’t so easy to achieve. Jobs and families and friends tend to get in the way of a regular fitness routine. And on occasion, ordering a greasy pizza sounds much more appetizing than a colorful, home-cooked meal.

The old adage of regular, moderate exercise and a proper diet being among the simplest, surest ways to remain healthy still guides many people in their day-to-day routine. But sometimes a healthy lifestyle isn’t so easy to achieve. Jobs and families and friends tend to get in the way of a regular fitness routine. And on occasion, ordering a greasy pizza sounds much more appetizing than a colorful, home-cooked meal. Throughout the last few years, fitness and diet trackers have been trying to shake us of these distractions and make living a healthy lifestyle easier and more intuitive to your personal daily schedule. But what are the pros and cons of using these mobile health care devices?

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes of exercise per week, which amounts to about 7,000 to 8,000 steps per day—about 1,000 to 2,000 more than the average American walks daily, according to the Washington Post. The biggest arguable benefit of mobile health fitness trackers is that they get you thinking about health and get you closer to reaching 150 minutes. Whether it’s a device like Fitbit that tracks your steps and heartbeat, or jogging at home on a smart elliptical machine, because you’re consciously monitoring how much exercise you’re getting through these devices, it turns out you’re taking a step in the healthier direction. The monitoring aspect of these devices is why they are beneficial. Now previously mundane tasks like parking the car far away, taking the stairs or walking to the local grocer, become more opportunities to reach your daily exercise goals.

The other side of this equation is how the collected data is being used. People might not pay attention to the levels of data access many fitness apps require: location, daily calendar, address book, texts, and call history—among other things. Developers say that much of this access is necessary to operate the tools, but the flipside is the data can also become part of your electronic health record. Once the mobile health data enters your EHR, you’re looking more consequences than just taking a few more steps each day.  

Data from fitness trackers, combined with medical-grade mobile health care device data, could reveal the primary factors behind leading causes of death, like cancer, heart disease and stroke. Plus, once doctors have algorithms that can use this data, which they currently don’t, they might spot signs of an ailment that would otherwise go undiagnosed until you feel ill. This allows us to develop preventative health care on a personal level, and it gives more opportunities to monitor your health if you do get sick.

By granting developers access to mass data from fitness trackers, they gain insights on how to encourage people to adopt healthier habits and reduce the need for costly medical attention on a wide scale. But experts also have concerns over the long-term privacy violations associated with that approach because they don’t want corporations knowing their day-to-day health and adjusting things like their health and life insurance rates accordingly.

The data captured by wearable fitness trackers or other health devices enables a pricing model for health insurance that’s unprecedented. This can be good or bad, depending on how healthy you are. Up until now, insurance companies didn’t know how healthy customers are unless the policy holders had a physical or bloodwork done. But fitness and health devices give them access to all kinds of new data: what persons are eating, how they are sleeping, or if they were exercising. And these can—and will—be used to more accurately estimate consumer risk. If you’re healthy, great—your premiums just went down. If not, then be prepared to spend a lot more. Additionally, if the EHR data collected isn’t protected, then it’s entirely possible that your personal medical information can be anonymized and then sold.

Mobile health fitness trackers have the potential to open a lot of doors to better health for users, but the tradeoff of privacy needs to be balanced. Users should be made aware of the risks they’re taking when giving access to their personal data, and be given the opportunity to dictate what information is shared.