Could iPhones and Big Data make us healthier? Are we ready for the personal trainer state?


One of the often overlooked wonders of the modern world is improvements to both our health, and the healthcare we receive. In the early 20th century the average life expectancy of someone, somewhere on Earth, was 31 – about the same as the rest of history before it. As of 2010, it’s 67. In the developed world, people can now expect to live into the 80s – and I’d wager that many of the kids born today will easily live to see their 100th birthday.

So I’ve been wondering: we talk a lot about how gadgets are changing how we communicate and so on – but could the devices we all carry around with us now also be about to make us a whole lot healthier?


The dramatic change in life expectancy is down to advances in science and technology – we know loads more about the human body, and have invented lots of amazing gadgets to help treat it.

A couple of years ago I had a nasty kidney stone, that required surgery to remove. Whilst this could have been fatal mere decades ago, the doctors were able to treat me based upon the knowledge they’d accrued about how the human body works over the last several hundred years. They knew that certain painkillers wouldn’t do more harm than good, because all of the other patients they’ve tried it on.

And this is how and why medicine has worked so well. But could it be about to get even better?

Health accessories like the Samsung S-Band and Nike Fuelband, and mobile apps like Strava track how much exercise we do. Our phones know where we are and what we’re doing – and consequentially can figure out an awful lot about us. So how long will it be before this data is used by our doctors?

Rather than just judge us on what we say in an eight minute consultation with our GPs, maybe they’ll be able to pull up our health data and analyse it properly? Maybe next time you tell the Doctor you’ll get more exercise, she’ll be able to tell if you’re lying?

“Are you getting your 5-a-day?”, asks the Doctor.
“Yes”, you lie.
“What about this massive cake that you posted on Instagram 3 weeks ago?”

Medical instruments are getting even better too. A friend of mine recently tested a “smart pill” that had various measuring devices embedded into it – which he could then track in real time using a smartphone app… whilst it was still in his body.

Pacemakers could soon be automatically calling an ambulance if you have heart problems – and there’s even “toys” designed to be companions for the elderly that will remind them to take their daily medicine.

Imagine if wearing something to monitor key health metrics, like our heart rate became routine.

Look at so-called “Big Data” too. Collecting lots of data isn’t just about making more accurate Netflix recommendations. I bet we’re not that far away from having our own personal genomes mapped, so drugs will be able to be synthesised that are custom to us.

There is currently an on-going debate too about healthcare data – who gets access to our records? Currently it’s only our doctors, but what if the data was opened up to scientists – suitably anonymised so that nothing nefarious can happen with it – but given the size of the dataset, scientists would be able to more easily identify the effects and side-effects of different treatments, and more quickly develop and bring new treatments to patients.

Add this all together – and we’re looking at a much healthier and longer future.

Of course – there is one awkwardly massive downside to this. Privacy concerns. Do we really want all of our health data logged? Do we really want a massive database showing just how much, or how little exercise we do? And what when all of this data is floating in the cloud. What’s to stop Samsung or Nike or whoever selling my data to an insurance company, who will boost my life insurance costs if they discover that rather than run a daily marathon, I instead eat a Snickers every day? (Yes this linguistic flourish would have worked better in the 1980s.)

Whilst most of us in Britain are now fairly comfortable with institutions like the NHS, and the “nanny state”, are we really ready for the personal trainer state?

James O’Malley
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