It is an axiom of health information technology that you can't improve what you don't measure, a belief that's apparently shared by nearly seven out of 10 Americans, according to the latest report by the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project and the California HealthCare Foundation.
How—and how well—Americans measure their health, however, introduces a lot more variability.Based on telephone interviews
conducted last August and September with 3,014 U.S. adults, a whopping 69% of survey respondents—given the description by Pew as “trackers”—said they kept track of at least one health indicator, such as weight, diet, exercise routine or symptom, either for themselves or for someone else, according to the report.
Only about one in five (21%) trackers, though, used some form of technology, such as a spreadsheet, mobile application or other form of device, to help them keep up with their health data. Far more popular than technology as health tracking tools were paper (34%) and “in their heads” (49%), according to survey respondents.
Weight, diet or exercise were most commonly tracked—by 60% of survey respondents—followed by one in three persons surveyed who tracked other health indicators, such as blood pressure, sleep patterns and headaches, the Pew report said. Another 12% of respondents kept track of a health indicator for a loved one.
Trackers with chronic conditions “are significantly more likely to report that these activities have had an impact on their health,” according to Pew researchers. The Pew report said 56% of trackers living with two or more conditions told researchers that keeping track “has affected their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone they help care for, compared with 40% of trackers who report no chronic conditions.”
In addition, 53% of trackers living with two or more conditions say keeping track “has led them to ask a doctor new questions or to seek a second opinion, compared with 33% of trackers with no chronic conditions.”
Finally, 45% of trackers living with two or more conditions told Pew researchers that keeping track “has affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition, compared with 25% of trackers with no chronic conditions.”
Report co-author Susannah Fox, an associate director at the Pew Research Center, said there was some similarity between the questions in the most recent, broader survey Pew survey, and those from the survey of 2010, which focused more narrowly on the use of technology.
In what she called an “apples to pears” comparison between the two surveys, Fox recalled that in 2010, 75% to 80% of survey respondents said they were internet users, while one in five Internet users said they tracked health-related items such as diet and exercise using an online tool.
So the percentages of the use of technology as health-tracking devices would appear not to have changed all that much in two years.
“It's still a small group,” Fox said. “What we see in this data is high potential.”
To Fox, that potential is borne by a confluence of three social factors, high rates of obesity and chronic illness, a broad interest by people in tracking healthcare metrics and an already high but still growing level of adoption of mobile technologies, such as smart phones and tablets.
“There is a sense that there is a possibility that many of these people could be converted” to more advanced tracking systems, she said.