Geoff McCleary: Quantified Health – It’s Just A Phase, Get Over It. Please

Geoff McCleary: Quantified Health – It’s Just A Phase, Get Over It. Please

A look at the issues with the current data-heavy state of the field of medicine.

Geoff McCleary, Digitas Health
  • 11 march 2014

The near ubiquitous acceptance of smartphones and mobile internet access have ushered in a new wave of connected devices and smart objects that help us compile and track an unprecedented amount of previously unavailable data.

This quantification of self, which used to be the sole domain of fitness fanatics and professional athletes, is now being expanded out and applied to everything from how we drive and interface with our cars, to homes that adapt around us, to our daily interactions with others. But the most exciting application of this approach has to be the quantification of health – from how much time we spend on the couch, to how frequently a symptom flares up, even to how adherent we are with our medications.


But this new phase of quantified health is just that – it’s just a phase. How many steps a patient takes is a meaningless data point, unless the information means something to the patient. How many pills we take isn’t going to tell us if we are getting better.

Over time, we begin to see correlations between some of the data points and we can see that on the days a user takes their pill, they average 3,000 more steps, but that still doesn’t tell us what is getting better. We can see that when they get a pill reminder every day, that they will refill their prescription twice as much as other users.  As marketers, that information makes us happy, but does it make the patient any healthier? Can’t we both be happy?

We can pretty the data up with shiny infographics and widgets, but unless there is meaningful context to that data it is just a nicely organized set of data points. So, what will make a difference? What will get us out of the dark ages of quantified health and into the enlightened age of Personalized Health? What will need to change to get me the treatment I need because of who I am – on a genetic level?

Personalized Health Is Coming


From birth we begin to amass a rich health history that is uniquely personal to each of us. Is that the key to unlocking the potential of contextual health and wellness for each of us? Can we plug our unique symptomology, test results, diagnosis and outcomes into the pool of quantified health data and make health truly personal and valuable?

Where would we start? If you are like me, you have seen (not including specialists) approximately 15-20 different physicians for various ailments and diagnoses over the years. None of whom got any information from the previous physician or the provider before them. I have probably had at least half as many insurance companies, none of which have shared any data with the next.

So we have to collect historical data in a clear and consistent way that maintains relevance from one encounter to the next.

Next we need to understand our uniqueness. There are any number of companies that will sequence some or all of the chemical code that makes us who we are, telling us if we are at risk for life altering conditions like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, even how fast I will metabolize proton pump inhibitors (PPI) medication when taken. What if I could connect my medical history to that information? What if my physician had the ability to treat the disease I will get in 20 years, not just the one that is bothering me now?

Once we understand our uniqueness, we can begin to understand our sameness. Oddly enough, sameness is an important part of a personalized history. As unique as we are as individuals, somewhere someone else has gone through something similar. Another unique individual halfway across the world has a similar genetic makeup and has survived breast cancer, had a cardiac episode or just had a problem with acid reflux. Knowing that I have a 1.8% risk for developing Parkinson’s Disease doesn’t mean as much to me until I know that the average risk is 1.6% and that I am within an acceptable range and probably don’t have anything to worry about.

Access will drive evolution from quantitative to qualitative.


Our history, our future, our uniqueness and our sameness mean nothing if we cannot get this information on-demand, in real- time. This information has to be available when we need it (and when we don’t) on whatever screen is handy, in whatever setting we are in. Our physicians need access to our information and they need it in the context of how others have dealt with the same situation.

This access can only be enabled by a cloud-based, open health profile. As quantified self gave way to quantified health, quantified health must give way to Qualitative Health. This cloud based profile of our health past, present and future will need to be both quantified and qualitative.  Based not only on numbers and raw data, but relevance, context and meaning. Based not on a database or an app, but in the cloud where personal information will accessible by whomever we designate, our sameness open and shareable with all — with all contributing to the meaning of our data, and physicians interacting in an informed, consistent manner across our entire health being, instead of just the 20 minutes a year when they see us.

That is truly health care, and I cannot wait for it to get here.

With the help of our partner Boehringer Ingelheim, PSFK Labs has released the latest Future of Health Report, which highlights the four major themes and 13 emerging trends shaping the evolving global landscape of healthcare. To see more insights and thoughts on the Future of Health visit the PSFK page.

Images: Mercy Health, World Bank Photo CollectionBerkley Lab, Tricia Wang


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