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Technology Not Widely Used in Health Tracking

Pew survey finds that majority of people track health indicators but only a fifth do so using smartphones, medical devices or spreadsheets.

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Seven in 10 U.S. adults track a health indicator such as weight, diet, exercise or a symptom of a chronic condition, according to the latest survey by the Pew Internet Project. But only 21% of these "trackers" use any kind of technology to do so -- 49% of trackers monitor their progress "in their heads," and 34% of them track the data on paper, using a notebook or a journal.

Sixty percent of adults track their diet, exercise or weight, the survey of 3,014 people found. A third of them track other indicators such as blood pressure, blood sugar, sleep patterns or headaches. And 12% track health indicators for a loved one.

The survey, which is the first of its kind, shows that people living with one or more chronic conditions are no more likely than other adults to track their weight, diet or exercise. But they're more likely than those without a disease to track other health indicators or symptoms, and this probability increases among those with more than one chronic condition.

[ Not all health software is created equal. Read When To Ignore That Mobile Health App. ]

Susannah Fox, associate director of research for the Pew Internet Project, told InformationWeek Healthcare that she wasn't surprised by the fact that just a fifth of adults used any kind of technology to track their health. This data, she noted, matches a finding of Pew's 2010 healthcare survey, which showed that 20% of Internet users tracked their health on the Web. Although there are some differences in how the questions were asked and what they measured, Fox said she sees a "stable" trend in the use of technology for health tracking over the past two years.

Specifically, the new survey found that 8% of trackers use a medical device such as a glucose meter; 7% use an app or other tool on their mobile phone or device; 5% use a spreadsheet; and 1% use a website or other tool.

The percentage of trackers who use a smartphone app falls short of the 19% of smartphone owners in a recent Pew poll who said they'd downloaded a health app, even after adjusting for differences in the two samples. Fox attributed that to the fact that people download many other kinds of apps besides health trackers.

In the new survey, there was a direct correlation between the age of respondents and how likely they were to use a smartphone app to track their health indicators. For example, 16% of 18-29-year-old trackers said they used an app on a smartphone or other mobile device, compared to 1% of trackers aged 65 or older. Conversely, trackers who were 50 or older were more likely than younger trackers to use medical devices for this purpose.

As one might expect, 52% of people 65 or older track health indicators other than diet, weight and exercise, compared with just 20% of those in the 18-29 age group. This pattern matches the prevalence of chronic diseases among trackers: Just 19% of adults with no chronic conditions track health indicators or symptoms, vs. 40% of people with one condition and 62% of adults with two or more conditions.

Similarly, 22% of trackers with two or more conditions use a medical device, such as a glucometer, compared with 7% of trackers with one condition and 2% of trackers who report no chronic conditions.

But even among those with two or more conditions, 45% use paper; the same is true for 37% of trackers with one condition.

This finding turned on a light bulb in Fox's mind. "Of course, it makes sense that older adults are doing this tracking and are more likely to use a notebook," she pointed out. "And I see it as an interesting challenge for software developers: the question I would ask developers is, 'What are you creating that is better than paper and pencil? What is the value add that you're able to bring to the conversation?'"

Nevertheless, she emphasized, the Pew survey results do not indicate how the use of technology to track health status will develop in the future.

"What we can see is there's a very large potential market in terms of health needs and in terms of people who are doing some kind of tracking. There's also a large market of people who are adopting technology. But there's a mismatch to the older adult population: they're the most likely to have a health need, and the least likely to have the technology."

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User Rank: Apprentice
2/8/2013 | 10:24:00 PM
re: Technology Not Widely Used in Health Tracking
We have to be realistic when trying to cater health apps towards people 65 years or older. The fact of the matter is that most of those people are already set in their ways and therefore very unlikely to want to change no matter how convenient the new technology is. The health tracking apps should try to cater to the needs of caretakers, from family members to nurses. I also believe that as our generation gets older and starts feeling the effects of old age, we will see more of an incline in the number of people using health tracking apps on smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Jay Simmons
InformationWeek Contributor
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