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Summary:

Soon, your phone will know more about your health history and fitness goals than your doctor does. And according RunKeeper founder Jason Jacobs, when this plays out at scale, it will change the dynamic between you, your doctor and the traditional healthcare system.

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Imagine a day when your phone has all of your health information. It knows your goals, your time horizons and what activities you need to focus on to achieve those goals. It knows your schedule, whether you like to do things alone or in groups and who you like to train with. It knows what you eat, how much you’ve slept and all of your vital signs in real-time.

Based on the information it collects, your phone will lay out a plan to help you live a healthier life. It will notify you when it’s time for an activity (i.e. taking a pill, going on a walk or taking your blood pressure), and adjust this plan as you go, based on what is and isn’t working. The more it learns about you and others like you, the more effective its guidance will become. There will be a day when the phone will be able to predict if a runner is on a path to overtraining, or tell someone who is trying to lose weight if he would get better results by adding another hour of sleep per night. And this day is coming sooner than you may think.

Many people are up in arms about how much your phone already knows about you. Some feel it’s an invasion of privacy, especially if the data got into the wrong hands. But there’s another side to this coin. If this data is harnessed for the greater good, especially as it relates to your personal health, it could be greatly beneficial. The shift to using the phone as a personal health device could play a big part in making people more accountable for their well-being, and it could have major ramifications for doctors and health insurance companies.

Lots of apps have emerged in the last few years to track all of this health information. Consumers are using apps such as Lose It! to track the food they eat, RunKeeper (my company) to track their runs, walks and bike rides, Zeo to track their sleep, and Instant Heart Rate to track their heart rate on-demand. Now that these apps are getting real traction, the data sets in consumer health are growing quickly. As an example, RunKeeper has more than 12 million users around the world. Our Health Graph API is already seeing several hundred million API calls per month from more than 85 integration partners, which is up 1,500 percent in the last year alone.

Making sense of large data sets has been done in other categories many times before. The missing link in consumer health has been a data set with enough scale to matter. Money is being pumped into digital health companies at a record clip and sensors are continually collecting more interesting data (motion, heart rate, glucose, body temperature, etc.) more accurately, all while getting smaller, lighter and less expensive. In addition to smartphones, sensors are being implanted in all kinds of items, including shoes, bathroom scales, ski goggles, fitness apparel, and even ingestible pills. While we are still in inning one of a long game, for data scientists focusing on big data problems in e-commerce and online advertising, it is time to start giving consumer health some serious attention.

By using your phone as a health monitor, different incentives can be implemented to increase your accountability even further. Services such as GymPact already enable you to make money by sticking with your fitness commitments (and make you pay if you don’t), Earndit lets you accrue rewards for your fitness activities, and RedBrick Health and other corporate wellness platforms help users get credit for making healthy choices. (All three are integrated with RunKeeper, via our Health Graph API.) Now, insurance companies are starting to get involved in this category, too. It is only a matter of time before you’ll be able to get discounted insurance rates based on how well you take care of your health.

Over time, people will come to rely more on their phone to keep them healthy than they do on their actual doctor. Rather than going once a year for a check-up and to get a few basic tests done, you will be monitored day in and day out by your phone. This does not mean that doctors will go away, but it does mean that the role of the doctor will be forever altered. It also means that doctors will be empowered with a lot more data on what their patients are up to between visits, which will help them provide better care.

Game-changing consumer health platforms will emerge in the next few years that make this futuristic vision a reality. In the process, these platforms will not only make the world significantly healthier, but they will also turn traditional healthcare on its head. I feel fortunate to be spending my days trying to build one of them.

Jason Jacobs is the founder and CEO of RunKeeper, a company turning the smartphone into a personal trainer in your pocket. He recently appeared at GigaOM Mobilize.

Image courtesy of Flickr user El Payo.

  1. a few comments….

    sensationalist article headline because it’s mostly the big data healthcare cloud ( not apps like personal trainers ) that will provide the dynamic insights between you and your doctors

    > you said based on the information it collects your phone will lay out a plan to help you live a healthier life

    Once again it’s more the connection to big data sources in the cloud but yes the sensors on the phone ( like for location intelligence ) can also tap into the internet of things

    You use the term ‘health platform’ rather loosely and a smartphone app. like RunKeeper is just a means to end component for the big data cloud backend.

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  2. Visionary piece for individuals and for healthcare – worth thinking about (I am an investor.) — don mclagan

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  3. I would not be surprised if smart phones become the actual doctor of humankind. The benefits of having a smart phone as a doctor are easy access to information and knowledge of what to but to cure it. However, this gives search engines the power to dictate which company is”best”, meaning the cure to your problem may be suppressed by a larger company, favoring monopolies. If monopolies control the client’s health information, then they become a huge part in the clients’ life.

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  4. Not to mention the ability to be seen by a doctor via your phone or via skype – http://www.webdocsnetwork.com/mhousecall
    Aetna is using a system like this as is the TX prison system.

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  5. Of course assuming we actually had viable treatments for many of the ailments out there. Even a face to face with your doctor and/or specialist many many times results in symptom management but no real “cure”, I fail to see how an iphone app will bring us to this star trek like level. Certainly the point here is talking about preventative medicine, encouraging folks to work out and helping them to adjust their workouts and their health habits to be optimal at maintaining health and staving off potential illness. We can see how well this works in our society in other formats, with an obesity rate that is skyrocketing, heart disease, diabetes, etc etc, once again I’m not sure that an app or apps will encourage people to be more healthy while sitting hunched over with their crooked neck trying to stimulate dopamine production while staring at a tiny screen. God I’m cynical, or maybe I’ve just seen too many patients who regardless of what help is thrown at them continue down their path to future illness.

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  6. Michael De Vivo Tuesday, October 2, 2012

    Very thought provoking! Idealistic? Maybe. But that’s probably why you are successful with RunKeeper. I’m waiting for video calling and health tracking pills to become more ubiquitous. Then a killer app might become less killer and more lively.

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  7. Steve is actually right—the phone is just one of many artifacts of the cloud. most of the interesting stuff will happen there. But Jason is right that continual sensing is going to be a big deal. We spent a lot of time thinking about this at Health 2.0 (and will spend a lot of time showing it at our conference next week in SF).

    But the key is getting it integrated into the workflow of the health care system. And even that is happening.

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  8. I’m in my 60’s and monitoring activity levels, diet, heart rhythm, cholesterol and triglycerides…and so forth. These are all important to my health. I have to work at it, and runkeeper.com, myfitnesspal.com, fooducate.com, and other apps… are in my own personal health “toolkit”….and in my I-phone. If I can monitor and look for correlations, I can share that with the cardiologist. Technology makes it easier to track. Thanks for the insights.

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  9. So many vast areas still don’t have the connectivity, so it can’t go mainstream until they do. The incumbent monopoly telcos only provide service in urban areas.

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