Can health technologies live up to the hype?

Can health technologies live up to the hype?

A simple search on the US iTunes App Store yields approximately 13,600 health and fitness apps. The Google Play Store similarly presents over 165 wellness program applications and 1,000 health-related apps. Fitbit recently announced $43 million in new seed funding and the market research firm, ABI, estimated that 485 million wearable computing devices will be shipped by 2018.

These statistics beg the question: How and to what extent will the hype surrounding health technologies including wearable activity trackers and associated mobile apps effectively address and accelerate the prevention and promotion of chronic diseases in working age Americans?

A case for wearable activity trackers and associated mobile apps lies in Gary Wolf’s quantified self movement. When individuals track, monitor and analyze daily activities, calories burned, weight and hours slept, everyday health should improve, resulting in reductions in health care expenditure and prolonged lives over the long-term. A quantified self-perspective may simultaneously address and minimize the 133 million Americans suffering from chronic disease.

While the evidence supporting the quantified self-movement is well-supported, the concern with wearable activity trackers and associated mobile apps is that they are targeted towards populations who need them the least. Chronic diseases – and particularly obesity – plague those in lower socio-economic classes, regardless of community.[i] According to the CDC, as female education decreases, obesity increases.

That’s why the Vitality Institute – with a mandate of advancing knowledge, evidence and understanding about the evolving science and art of health promotion and prevention in order to build healthier societies through effective programs – is focused on exploring technologies and other options for accelerating the prevention and control of chronic diseases in working age Americans. Its ultimate goal is to galvanize action to achieve a healthy public policy in the United States.

To attain this goal, the Vitality Institute hosted a Commission Forum in partnership with the New York Academy of Sciences and the Institute for the Future on September 19th in New York. This was the first Forum in a series across the country – all of which explore how to address chronic disease in working age Americans – and focused on innovative health technologies. The Commission Forum was led by Derek Yach, Executive Director of the Vitality Institute and William Rosenzweig, Managing Partner at Physic Ventures LP, and brought together key Commissioners including Richard Adler, Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future and Mandana Arabi, Director at The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science at the New York Academy of Sciences, experts and observers interested in health promotion and wellness using technology.

The Forum will act as a key input to the Vitality Institute’s Commission, which aims to place the power of evidence-based prevention at the center of health care policies and actions in the US. The Commission will focus on chronic diseases, mental health, and related determinants that drive the burden of disease and associated costs.

While the excitement surrounding wearable activity trackers and associated mobile apps does have strong foundations for improving health at an individual level, ensuring all Americans benefit requires a more multi-faceted and stakeholder-engaged approach. Success will depend on upon advances in science and technology, but also new insights from behavioral economics in combination with supportive public policies. The Vitality Institute Commission is working towards practical ways of solving complex chronic disease risks through private-public collaboration. The Commission report and outcomes will be released in spring, 2014. 

By Derek Yach, executive director, The Vitality Institute, and a former executive director of the World Health Organization (WHO), and William Rosenzweig, Institute commission chair and managing partner, Physic Ventures

The Vitality Institute, a global health think tank focused on reducing chronic disease risk, was established in May, 2013. To join the conversation, follow The Vitality Institute on Twitter @VitalityInst.

[i] See studies by: Albrigth et al. 2005; Bove and Olson 2006; Estabrooks et al. 2003; Giles-Corti and Donovan 2002; Gordon-Larsen et al. 2006; Hanson and Chen 2007b; Luepker et al. 1993; Mauro et al. 2008; Molnar et al. 2004; Okosun et al. 2006; Richardson et al. 2004; Robert and Reither 2004; Sallis et al. 1996; Wang 2001; Wang et al. 2006; Wang et al. 2007; Wilson et al. 2004..

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