THE BLOG

Wikipedia, Fitness Trackers and Health Apps: Proceed With Caution?

26/05/2015 09:54 BST | Updated 22/05/2016 10:59 BST

In 2014, Google's Larry Page predicted that 100,000 lives a year could be saved if he could data mine all the information being generated by the medical industry. Around the same time, it turned out that the British public trusts Wikipedia more than the likes of the BBC and that almost 60 million of us will be using a fitness tracker by 2018.

What do these seemingly unconnected stories have in common? Well they indicate that we're all starting to take responsibility for our own health and that data plays an increasing role.

But just because one in seven of us now has a health app on our smartphones and we all like to Google our flu symptoms, it doesn't necessarily follow that the information these tools provide us with is accurate, or even useful.

In Wiki we trust?

Over 25,000 of Wikipedia's medical articles receive almost 200 million views every month. It's a source that is increasingly becoming the first and most relied-upon choice for consumer health information. It's collaborative and constantly changing and we're told that many volunteers from the medical profession regularly check the pages for inaccuracies.

While free, convenient access to medical information is a great development for all of us - and the 70% of physicians and medical students who also admit to using the site - its open-access and democratic nature has understandably raised concerns. Last year, inspired to clear up the question of reliability once and for all, The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association compared articles from Wikipedia with other peer-reviewed sources. They found that 90% of the entries made statements that contradicted latest medical research.

In fairness however, Wikipedia is not an accredited medical site under the watchful eye of regulated agencies, nor has Wikipedia ever envisioned it would become a go-to place for health advice. In fact, Wikipedia clearly states in its own Reliability of Wikipedia page that "we do not expect you to trust us."

When the story first broke last May, Wikimedia UK, the site's British arm, confirmed it was "crucial" that people with health concerns spoke to their GP. So while there's no doubt that the crowd-sourced encyclopaedia is a valuable tool, its medical pages should be treated with a healthy degree of scepticism.

But what about health apps and fitness trackers?

While most of us have at least one health app on our smartphone, it seems that doctors are not yet convinced by the new technology. A recent poll found that 21% of UK GPs had noticed an increase in patients asking about the data from their chosen apps and 80% of doctors said they wouldn't trust them. 88% also feared they would lead to an increase in perfectly healthy people arriving at clinics, demanding care.

Though doctors are yet to be completely convinced, another research body found that most health-related calculating apps, such as those that track exercise and calories, actually provide reasonably accurate and reliable results. Ultimately though, these apps are designed to measure and not to monitor and advise - data is meaningless without clinical insight.

These tools can be a useful way to empower people to take responsibility for their wellbeing, but consumer apps are still far from being considered effective in supporting people in their daily care. However, clinically guided programmes that use apps alongside medical grade devices show promising results. Banner Health in the USA has shown that elderly people with chronic diseases can be effectively cared for at home by using apps, connected devices and 2-way video that is being monitored by a 24/7 Remote Operations Centre.

As for fitness trackers, the best of them are good at giving you information. You can track bursts of activity and their times, set objectives, keep an eye on your progress, see patterns and some of the better trackers can even remind you of those fitness goals. But quantifying yourself isn't the same as improving yourself.

We're not there yet but medical grade wearable devices will eventually become commonplace. Coupled with the right data from trustworthy sources and insightful medical advice, they could one day make all the difference in healthcare delivery - from prevention and diagnosis, to treatment and recovery.

The future of healthcare?

Apps and wearables may not yet be perfect but the good news is that this consumer-driven personalisation of healthcare is forcing positive change. There is great potential in the massive amounts of health data captured by these devices. Inspired by people's growing interest in proactively managing their own well-being, apps and wearables are simply too valuable to be ignored - something that global technology brands and start-ups the world over are well aware of.

Google is working on a contact lens capable of constantly measuring blood sugar levels and MIT is working on Catra, a cheap plastic lens that allows people to detect cataracts within minutes on their smartphones and requires no training. Philips is developing new technologies ranging from a lab-on-a-chip, to a "smart pill" - the IntelliCap - that will one day electronically control drug delivery from inside the body.

There can be no doubt that technology combined with insight is changing the health industry for the better.