Staying in touch with self-tracking technology


The rise in popularity of wearable devices and phone apps to track health status is helping to engage patients in their own wellbeing, says APA Innovation Advisor Barry Nguyen.

The ‘quantified self’ movement is here. This movement is associated with individuals utilising technology such as wearable devices and mobile phone apps to track specific health parameters—mental, emotional, physical and social wellbeing. The collection of daily data can help the individual gain self-knowledge to improve their quality of life through potential actionable insights such data can provide.

With the emergence of health consumerism and advancements in technology, there is an increasing number of relatively inexpensive wearable devices and mobile phone apps, which enable individuals to track various health parameters including symptom logging, sleep hygiene, stress levels, heart rate, diet and activity levels.

There is an increasing number of physical products available to the public from popular brands such as Apple, Samsung, Garmin, Fitbit and Polar. There are also more advanced niche products such as the Athos Training System, a smart garment which tracks muscle activity and motion. All of these products have broader implications for physiotherapists when managing their patients’ general health and optimising clinical outcomes.

Health professionals such as physiotherapists are traditionally guided by established science and evidence-based practice guidelines.

Therefore, the self-quantification movement may seem in conflict with this due to the experimental nature of this approach and the relatively smaller population sizes to which it applies. Nonetheless, there is an increasing number of health professionals such as physiotherapists who are looking more closely at how to extract meaningful insights with data from self-tracking to optimise health outcomes at both an individual and population level. In particular, many of the measures from such solutions can assist physiotherapists to change behaviour and promote healthier lifestyles.

Key factors that have contributed to the rise of self-quantification and self-experimentation include:

  • technologies for human measurement are increasingly available to the public, not just professionals
  • the internet has enabled the public to have increased access to information and ideas about health
  • the increase in public awareness of alternative ideas and solutions to healthcare, appreciating that many ‘experts’ may have limits to what they can offer
  • Millennials are health conscious and early adopters of technology, and are leading the use of wearable devices and health apps.

So what are the implications for physiotherapists managing patients who are self-quantifiers? From one perspective, self-quantifiers are ideal patients because they are engaged and proactive in taking responsibility for their own health. However, it is important to be aware that being unprepared for such scenarios can result in patients challenging the physiotherapist’s knowledge, and as a result, threatening their authority.

In such circumstances, it may be best for the physiotherapist to take a strong collaborative approach and work with the patient as partners in their health, focusing on helping their patient achieve their goals.

Physiotherapists can ensure the patient is informed of the potential benefits and risks associated with what they are experimenting with, and help the patients avoid any potential danger and safety issues.

An example of self-quantification often used in the community is activity tracking solutions such as the Strava app, Fitbits, Apple and Garmin watches. This has been reported to be a useful tool for physiotherapists as it can provide insights into external training load and assist with injury prevention and performance optimisation. In addition, the online social community associated with many of these apps—which often incorporate benchmarking performance—can be helpful for motivation and support.

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Disclaimer: This material is intended for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice or meet the specific needs of your clinical context.

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