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Sorry, But I'm Not Sure I'm Ready To Use My Smartphone As A Health Assistant

24/10/2016 14:09

Mobile phones have been at the centre of the technology takeover, evolving from a device once used to make calls into pocket-sized personal assistants.

Once their shrill alarm has woken us up in the morning, we're reminded to send flowers for Aunt Mabel's birthday, before GPS directs us to the first meeting of the day, conveniently letting us know whether an umbrella might be required. No task is too much, from ordering dinner to our desk, or switching on our central heating before we even get home.

While making life a little easier, smartphones have far deeper potential. Given they are always on our person, the health benefits are obvious, and there are already numerous apps for controlling and managing wellbeing via smartphones.

In a country where we're blessed with free healthcare for all, and the NHS has a handy hotline that can help you decide whether urgent medical attention is required, you might question the need for virtual doctor apps like Babylon Health and Push Doctor, which charge for video consultations with GPs.

Babylon offers unlimited consultations for £4.99 per month, while Push Doctor's unlimited service costs £20 per month and includes prescriptions, referral letters and sick notes.

You can imagine such apps are a hypochondriacs' dream, although it's worth questioning their true value as, of course, virtual doctors cannot undertake physical exams.

Meanwhile, Apple's new built-in Health app has been recently overhauled and now helps users track activity, mindfulness, sleep, nutrition and reproductive health.

There's also a handy Medical ID tool that can be accessed from the emergency dialler without having to unlock the phone, letting a medic know about your allergy to penicillin or your diabetes. It's a potentially life-saving function that will conceivably replace medical bracelets in the near future.

Today I considered adding my own information to this app, but somehow I just don't feel comfortable sharing my vital stats with a faceless app, yet. Maybe that's where Babylon Health and Push Doctor come into play - they bridge the gap between tech and health with at least some form of human contact.

Many health apps work with some form of, often wearable, accessory. To rattle off a few - and you can stick the word 'smart' in front of all of these - there are now heart rate monitors, breathalysers, weighing scales, blood pressure monitors, blood sugar meters and thermometers.

You can imagine the usefulness of such gear to those with chronic health issues.

But perhaps the most common examples for everyday use are smart watches and fitness bands - now adorning the arms of many who keep fit.

As an aside, this wrist candy has been under attack in recent weeks, following some new research by the University of Pittsburgh suggesting wearable fitness trackers don't make you any thinner. A two-year study revealed that "commercially available wearable devices for gauging physical activity are not useful tools for weight loss."

That study focused on obesity, but - of course - there's no reason to assume that wearers of fitness bands are trying to lose weight, merely get fitter.

Whether you're a fitness bandit or not, there's undeniably a synergy between health and technology, and limitless potential. Developers and mobile makers are on to it, and are already showing huge creativity but, from a consumer perspective, it feels like we're merely at curiosity phase, tentatively dipping our toes in the water.

Why the hesitation to follow the early adopters (and hypochondriacs)?

I can only speak for myself. Perhaps it's because our health is so important that it still seems frivolous to pair it with a mobile.

Perhaps the evolution of smartphone health tech is sullied by a backdrop of cyber crime. Our personal health records could be abused in the wrong hands.

Or perhaps it's Big Brother syndrome. Which third parties will be privy to our collective health data, and why should we share it?

If you identify with one or all of those fears, then tech makers and scientists alike need to go further in convincing us it's for the greater good, and that such data can improve medical research.

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