When Smartphones Do Dumb Things

Mobile health apps are slowly revolutionizing patient care, but occasionally the revolution takes a left turn into lunacy and feeds a hypochondriac's worst fears.

Paul Cerrato, Contributor

October 25, 2013

3 Min Read

8 Wearable Tech Devices To Watch

8 Wearable Tech Devices To Watch

8 Wearable Tech Devices To Watch(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

What are we to make of the Owlet Baby Monitor, which attaches to a baby's sock and measures heart rate, skin temperature, blood oxygen levels, sleep quality and more, and sends the data to your smartphone?

"This is an invitation to craziness," says Kenneth, Bromberg, MD, chairman of pediatrics at Brooklyn Hospital Center.

Bromberg goes on to say in a recent Wall Street Journal article that there's no medical or safety reason for the device: "It will make [parents] neurotic and anxious. I don't see how any new parent with that gadget won't be driven insane."

It's only natural for new parents to fret about the well-being of a newborn, especially if it's the first child, but as Bromberg points out, it's unlikely they'll find peace of mind monitoring a long list of vital signs on their smartphone. You might make a case for this kind of monitoring for a newborn suffering from some sort of chronic disease, but not for a normal child.

[ Is your health data being kept private? Read Walgreens Accused Of Exposing Customer Health Data. ]

Devices like the Owlet are symptoms of a more global social disease: The medicalization of everyday life, a growing obsession among the worried well in an affluent nation. Men over a certain age no longer have a normal, age-related decline in libido, they have erectile dysfunction. Restless or poorly disciplined children no longer need firmer parent supervision; now they have attention deficit disorder. And, of course, stressed-out office workers with insomnia are suffering from a sleep "disorder" requiring prescription medicine.

Several social critics have put the blame for such medicalization of life's everyday ups and downs on the pharmaceutical industry, which seems to always have a new medication to solve the problem. Now some mobile health developers are following this same path, seeing opportunities to cash in on the nation's hypochondriacal tendencies.

Fortunately, most mobile health apps and devices take the high ground, concentrating on monitoring parameters that matter to people who really need them. Countless diabetics have benefited from blood glucose meters that link to their smartphones. Home-bound patients with congestive heart failure are now feeding body weight readings into mobile devices to send to their physicians. A new app being tested at the Mayo Clinic even allows you to reach a doctor, find a diagnosis, and track one's medical records. The app, which is simply called "Better," also includes Mayo's online symptom checker.

Of course, a digital symptom checker is a two-edged sword. For a well-adjusted person without unrealistic fears of doom and destruction, it can help detect a serious health problem before it requires emergency care. For others, it's one more excuse to worry about imaginary disease.

It's so easy to fall into this trap when using a symptom finder because most diseases have no pathognomonic sign. In other words, there is no one signpost that definitively announces the presence of a specific disease. In their earlier stages, many life-threatening disorders announce themselves with vague signs and symptoms that can be caused by a hundred other minor disorders that usually disappear on their own. So it's easy for a worrywart to jump to the conclusion that their persistent headache is proof that they have a brain tumor, when in fact it's because they tried giving up caffeine cold turkey.

Mobile health, like telemedicine services, will eventually take us places we never dreamed possible a few short years ago. Let's not waste time along the way measuring bodily functions that are better left unknown.

About the Author(s)

Paul Cerrato


Paul Cerrato has worked as a healthcare editor and writer for 30 years, including for InformationWeek Healthcare, Contemporary OBGYN, RN magazine and Advancing OBGYN, published by the Yale University School of Medicine. He has been extensively published in business and medical literature, including Business and Health and the Journal of the American Medical Association. He has also lectured at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons and Westchester Medical Center.

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