After the 23andMe genetic test told me I have a higher-than-average risk of heart disease, I decided to purchase an elliptical machine and now use it every day. Then I noticed that half of my office is competing for how many steps they take each week, using FitBit activity trackers. And I just read that PatientsLikeMe, a social networking site for people with chronic conditions, has launched a platform for conducting low-cost clinical trials and other medical studies about treatments and behavior.
On first glance these startups seem unrelated to each other. But in a very basic way, they have something powerful in common: consumer-centered, personally generated health data. They are capturing a new opportunity that could be worth billions of dollars. For instance, 23andMe expects to complete 1 million gene scans this year alone. By 2017, 500 million personal health tracking sensors are expected to be sold annually.
They also share another attribute: These products and services are commonly ignored or treated as toys or distractions by insurers, providers, and prestigious medical journals. But health-care stakeholders need to think about how to harness this trend and integrate these new tools into mainstream medicine. That’s because consumer-centered health data are about directly collecting and providing information in a way that enables two vital things: a shift toward healthier behavior, and evidence for suggesting new courses of treatment.
I’ve been thinking about these issues because I’ve been surprised by the motivational power of this type of information in my own life. Recently, figuring “why not for $99,” I spit into a tube and dropped it in the mail for my 23andme results. Two things I learned particularly stood out. The first was an increased risk of coronary heart disease. The second was an increased sensitivity to the blood thinner warfarin.
So what did I do with these data? For about five years, I’ve been absolutely pining for an elliptical machine. I knew that for my schedule and lifestyle, it would be the most effective way to make sure I got regular cardio exercise. But I also knew that there was no place to fit the thing in my small Boston-area townhouse, and these machines are really expensive. Somehow, though, my 23andme results pushed my ambivalence over the edge, and I figured out solutions to those “insurmountable” barriers. Finally, I’m exercising regularly.
The warfarin data point, on the other hand, is more difficult to figure out what to do with. Warfarin Misdosing can be very dangerous, so the best I can figure is that I should bring this information to the attention of a doctor if I’m ever in a relevant situation, which doesn’t feel like a particularly satisfying answer.