David Kerr: Self obsessing health technology

david_kerrHas the health tech industry and those who fund it lost the plot? Apparently, the next must have technology is the connected toothbrush. A “data driven oral health startup” company in the United States has just received a multi-million dollar investment to further develop a smartphone connected toothbrush.

With this toothbrush, an accelerometer measures how long a user brushes his or her teeth, and this information is then transferred to a smartphone that records teeth cleaning trends over time. The device can also play music during the suggested two minutes brushing time “to create a highly engaging user experience.” Whether this will be beneficial for the oral health of the nation remains to be seen, but this type of product is very likely to end up in one or two Christmas stockings this year.

For some, the concept of the connected toothbrush may be a step too far for personal health devices. Yet creating technologies to record mundane human tasks may turn out to have potential value beyond simple commercial gain for the companies creating them and their investors.

For example, a daily shower or bathing app could record duration and temperature, which algorithmically converts the information to give an indication of the shower’s environmental burden. The market for this—at least in the US—could be enormous, as according to an article from the New York Times from a few years ago: “A daily shower is a deeply ingrained American habit. Most people would no sooner disclose they had not showered in days than admit infidelity.”

This type of gadget would certainly be popular here in tech savvy, drought stricken California. A shower app could also be beneficial from a health perspective; it could encourage users to carry out self examination for early detection of skin, testicular, and breast cancer. Or, the functionality could be added so that this app was capable of measuring body fat. The time spent naked in the bathroom seems a good opportunity to combat excess weight gain.

Taking this even further, the iPhone could make stool gazing mainstream—bowel movement recording apps are already available. Again, these could have reasonable health benefits if the app also contributes to screening for bowel cancer, and also for people living with inflammatory bowel disease, although the symptoms are usually only too obvious.

And there’s still more mundane tasks out there that we could quantify in apps, such as data dredging the daily shave. This may be a boon for the male grooming industry and for purveyors of cures for low testosterone—which, incidentally, is expected to be a $5bn industry by 2017—but it is likely to be of only marginal interest to endocrinologists. Likewise, it is a bit difficult to identify the potential health benefits of how often toenails are clipped, socks changed, or hair combed.

As they move into measuring human physiology, device manufacturers and app developers will need to account for the body’s natural variability to prevent regular users becoming anxious, neurotic, and self obsessed with the minutiae of their bodily functions.  These mundane, measuring devices—together with the plethora of existing wellness apps—seem to have the common aim of creating perfect human beings, although at a price of having to spend significant amounts of time reviewing the data obtained.

Recording personal physiology for finite periods of time to aid diagnosis and the treatment of existing medical conditions makes intuitive sense; as does recording the number of steps taken, the number of calories burned, or the maximum heart rate achieved, when it comes to health promotion. Although it is probable that the groups most likely to benefit from participation in exercise, will be the ones least likely to use the technology on a regular basis.

Much less convincing is the idea of recording the routine and mundane activities that we all have to participate in, even with a “highly engaging user experience.” With many health related apps already sharing data with family, friends, and the rest of the worldwide web, I suspect that people are likely to want to keep the frequency of their tooth brushing, ear-waxing, and nose hair trimming between themselves and their bathroom mirrors.

David Kerr wears many hats, sometimes at the same time—diabetologist; editor of Diabetes Digest; researcher; and founder of VoyageMD.com, a free service for travellers with diabetes, and Excarbs.com, which focuses on exercise and insulin. He is now director of research and development at Sansum Diabetes Research Institute in Santa Barbara, California. You can follow him on Twitter (@GoDiabetesMD) and Linkedin.

Competing interests: The author has no relevant competing interests to declare.