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On the move: Big Data in Biomedicine goes mobile with discussion on mHealth

Ida Sim, MD, PhD, would like to prescribe data as easily as she orders a blood test or a prescription for antibiotics. Sim, a professor of medicine at the University of California-San Francisco, told attendees of a Big Data in Biomedicine panel on mHealth yesterday afternoon that she doesn't want access to data collected willy-nilly, with little regard for the patient's health condition or needs.

Instead, she wants to tailor data collection to the individual patient. For example, there's no need to collect activity data for a competitive marathoner, but it would be useful for a sedentary computer programmer.

And she doesn't care how patients collect their data; they can "bring their own device," Sim, who also co-directs of biomedical informatics at the UCSF Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, said.

The design of those devices is integral to the quality of the data developed, pointed out panelist Ram Fish, vice president of digital health at Samsung. He said his team starts with "small data," making sure devices such as their Simband watch accurately records biomarkers such as blood pressure or heart rate in a single individual, before expanding it to the population level.

He said he's most keen on developing tools that make a real difference in health, such as the detection of abnormal heart rhythms, a project still in the works.

And speaking of new tools, Stanford's Euan Ashley, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine and of genetics, shared some early results from the cardiovascular app MyHeart Counts, which Stanford introduced in March to great acclaim.

Ashley reported that the study has yielded information about the link between sleep patterns and happiness (those who go to bed late and get up late are less happy than others) and about geographic patterns of produce consumption (South Dakota users out-eat Californians when it comes to fruits and veggies). The project's team is just starting to delve into some of its other findings, which include correlations between the 6-minute timed walk and overall health.

"We're in a really new era and one we don't really understand," Ashley said.

Panelist Laura Carstensen, PhD, director of the Stanford Center on Longevity and a professor of psychology, provided additional insight into just how different this era is.

In 1800, the average lifespan was the mid-30s. In 1900, it was 47. In 2000, it was 77 and now it's up to 79, with no signs of stopping, Carstensen said.

"Oddly enough, people are not dancing in the streets," Carstensen said "Instead, people are worried about aging -- about themselves as individuals and how we're going to sustain a population that's very old."

Maintaining your health while aging is key, but getting folks to modify behaviors that leave them ailing in their older years isn't easy, she said.

"One thing we know well: When you tell people about physical activity, that it's good for them and they need to exercise, it has essentially no effect," Carstensen said.

Social scientists do have some insights into behavior modification that can and should be adopted by developers of new mHealth technologies, she said. For example, automatically enrolling people in a program, forcing them to actively opt-out, boosts participation. Aligning health behaviors with individual goals has also proven effective, she said.

Carstensen sounded optimistic about the future. "We're armed with the truly breathtaking potential of technology to help us figure out how we're living our lives and how to change them," she said.

Action from the rest of the conference, which continues through Friday, is available via live-streaming and this app. You can also follow conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #bigdatamed.

Previously: Big Data in Biomedicine panelists: Genomics' future is bright, thanks to data-science toolsHarnessing mobile health technologies to transform human health, Helping older adults live independently using mobile-health technology and MyHeart Counts app debuts with a splash
Photo of mHealth panel members by Saul Bromberger

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