Using technology to improve health

Lately, with health care reform being the health topic de rigueur, much of the talk about technology in health has been related to electronic medical records. But, as the presentations at the 2010 Society of Behavioral Medicine (SBM) Annual Meeting demonstrate, there is a lot more to using technology to improve health than just electronic medical records. Many of these technologies focus on cancer risk factors like physical activity, diet and diabetes.

Pedometers (or step counters) have been around for decades, but lately thanks to some key technological advances, pedometers have gotten a big boost. Now you can seamlessly upload your pedometer data to the web and track your progress. The declines in the cost of some technologies has also meant that more sophisticated devices that measure both the amount and intensity of exercise (called accelerometers) are more affordable. These devices track both your total steps as well as the number of those steps that are aerobic, or more vigorous. This means those dilly-dallying steps I take when slowly walking my dog in the morning don’t count toward my aerobic goal, but the faster ones I take when I’m running late to a meeting do! The latest devices update seamlessly online and allow you to both track and share your progress.

Phone-based tracking
Smart phone applications (“apps”) to allow individuals to track and monitor health behaviors are getting lots of buzz these days. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of data on their effectiveness yet, but expect to see that coming soon. These applications allow you to track your food intake in a real time diary (evidence does show that people who keep food diaries do better at losing weight and maintaining a healthy weight). There are also programs in the works to allow you to use the camera in your phone to track your food and caloric intake! Similar programs for physical activity diaries are also available, and we expect to see more and more advances that will link smart phones with pedometers. There are even apps (many of which are free) that let you use your iPhone as a pedometer or a GPS tracking device that can show you how far you’ve gone, how fast, and even how much up and down you’ve traveled! Most of these applications haven’t been evaluated in a research setting, but the principles that underlie them have been.

Web tools
One of the most intriguing things presented at SBM last week was on the use of social networking websites to build support in young adult populations for improving health. In particular, some promising results were presented from a team at Vanderbilt on their use of a website for adolescents with diabetes to improve management of symptoms and improving health behaviors. Expect to see more and more of these sites for kids and adults going forward. Not only do they provide a place to track your progress, but you can get tips and support from others in a similar situation. And of course, if you want a personalized risk assessment, Your Disease Risk is a powerful validated tool that gives you YOUR risk for a host of cancers, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and osteoporosis.

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