This post is part of Exploring a Culture of Health, a citizen science series brought to you by Discover Magazine, SciStarter and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, serving as an ally to help Americans work together to build a national Culture of Health that enables everyone to lead healthier lives now and for generations to come.
Imagine if everyday technology could transform how we manage our health and wellbeing? What if your phone could alert your doctor to a change in your behavior? Or what if grandma’s stove could tell you she is already up and about in the morning? It sounds complicated but as it turns out, it might simply be a matter of tapping into the data generated from everyday devices. Two independent groups in California are doing just this.
Using Mobile Technology to Help Youths with Mental Illness
At UC Davis behavioral scientists with the Early Diagnosis and Preventive Treatment (EDAPT) Clinic are embarking on a yearlong project to study whether mobile technology can improve treatment for young people who are in the early stages of psychotic illness. The EDAPT group has teamed up with Ginger.io a health data start-up to assess “users’ social, physical and mental health status”. Through an app, users can actively input their daily symptoms, medication adherence, mood, and how they are coping, while information on their movements and daily social contacts, such as the number of incoming telephone calls and text messages, is gathered in the background. All of this data provides a patient and his or her clinical team with a finer resolution of that patient’s health profile.
“With this detailed level of data, our health care providers get a more complete picture of how their patients are doing – across multiple domains – in a way that may not be possible in a brief session,” explains Dr. Tara Niendam, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at UC Davis and Director of Operations for the EDAPT Clinic.
Having a record of this information enables the patient and the clinician to build links between experiences and symptoms. “Instead of relying on the patients’ memory, the clinician is able to look at the data and say, ‘Hey, I noticed that you had an upsetting conflict Tuesday and your mood was very low Wednesday. What happened?’ It empowers the patients who can learn to recognize his or her potential triggers,” says Dr. Niendam. The technology also gives clinicians information about their patients on a more immediate basis. “We quickly identify patients who have stopped their meds and can reach out to them about why, allowing us to identify issues with side effects or patient concerns more quickly,” explains Dr. Niendam.
And it works for patients too—by using mobile phone technology, adolescents are able to monitor their health and partner with their provider in a way that fits their lifestyle.
Tapping Smart Meters to Monitor Wellbeing
Just two hours south of UC Davis in the technology hub of Silicon Valley, the people at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation (PAMF) Innovation Center are examining ways to address the social health and wellbeing for the aging community. Their recent effort, LinkAges Connect, is exploring the potential for signal detection to help seniors continue to live independently, safely.
One of the challenges to the aging population is their loss of independence, their increased loneliness, and the burden they feel themselves to be. “As one senior put it, ‘your world dies before you do.’ These are still valuable members of the community. We have a moral responsibility to address this problem,” says Dr. Paul Tang PAMF Vice President and Chief Innovation and Technology Officer. “We want to build a community based support system, to open up their world again.”
LinkAges Connect works by “crowdsourcing the signals around an individual” to manage their care. What does this mean? When the mailman sees that yesterday’s mail has been picked up that is a signal. When the lights go off at night that is a signal. The challenge for the LinkAges team was devising how to use these signals. The answer they came up with – tap into the smart meters infrastructure.
Smart meters are electronic devices used by utility companies to remotely monitor household consumption of basic utilities such as electricity, gas or water. These meters provide a constant data stream and over time can provide a picture of an individual’s typical home activity. “It is a non-invasive, non-intrusive way of detecting if grandma is okay,” says Tang. “When grandma wakes up and makes breakfast, there will be a spike in energy use. That information will be relayed through LinkAges Connect’s system to notify the family that grandma is up and active.” The system can even help detect if something is wrong. Increased energy use at night for example, could indicate that grandma is suffering from insomnia. Noticing a change, her caretaker would know to check in.
With the support of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), LinkAges Connect with be testing its system in the homes of seniors for more research and development. The UC Davis/Ginger.io study is also a recipient of RWJF funding.
“These two projects are testing whether we can leverage technology to help us, and the people who care for us and about us, track and understand changes in our behavior that are indicative of a change in health status,” explained Paul Tarini, Senior Program Officer at RWJF. “Making it easier to be mindful of our health will help us advance a Culture of Health.”
You don’t have to be enrolled in a specific study to contribute to health and technology research. Ginger.io app users can contribute to science by passively submitting their own information or enrolling in current research collaborations if eligible. There is also information for researchers interested in utilizing this technology in their work.
Many citizen science projects are taking advantage of sensors to collect and track data. AirCasting is a project that allows citizens to monitor air quality by combining a smartphone app and a DIY Air Monitor. Loss of the Night uses your cell phone camera as a sensor to monitor light pollution. Noise Tube turns your cell phone into an environmental sensor to collect data about noise pollution. These and many other similar projects can be found using the project finder at SciStarter, an online citizen science hotspot.
What are some ways you track your health? Does it affect your day to day choices? Do you have ideas for using existing technology or infrastructure to monitor or measure health? Leave a comment below.
Interested in a more active participation opportunity in a health related citizen science project? The UC San Francisco Health eHeart study is globally recruiting participants for their ‘electronic clinical research study’. This study examines lifestyle patterns and heart health to improve what doctors know about preventing and treating heart disease. Participants will be asked to complete eVisits (online surveys) and in some cases wear special heart sensors. If you have an internet connection, you can participate.
If learning about gene-environment interactions is in your DNA, Infinome might be of interest. Infinome is an open science experiment studying how genomics and behavior affect health and longevity. Participants submit genomic information, such as results from 23andMe, as well as health and behavioral monitoring data. The project is seeking participants to help them through beta testing.
UCDavis/ginger.io and Palo Alto Medical Foundation
Exploring a Culture of Health: Detecting Signals of Wellbeing by CitizenSci, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.