Personal Biological Monitoring: The Future of Health Diagnostics

Two weeks ago, I attended the Global Spa Summit in Bali, Indonesia, where spa and wellness leaders from around the world gathered together to discuss trends for the future of wellness.  One surprising trend that came up again and again in multiple sessions during the summit was the concept of personal biological monitoring—people using technology to keep track of their own health metrics.

Traditionally, we have left all health diagnosis in the hands of our physicians.  Medical measurements are typically performed by highly trained specialists using very expensive pieces of equipment, which are paid for (and controlled by) the insurance companies. 

But modern technology is giving us new tools to measure our health ourselves.  Perhaps the most common is the heart rate monitor, which has been used by athletes for at least the past ten years to track cardiovascular fitness and performance. 

In recent years, the technology is growing in new directions so people can track their fitness more broadly, using GPS to track distances run or walked, motion detectors to count the number of steps or detect general activity throughout the day, or home scales using electrical impedance to measure percentage of body fat in addition to weight.

The technologies are getting better and more sophisticated, allowing us to track more and more personal health data in less and less invasive ways.  New apps are being developed that can measure your heart rate through the camera on your smart phone (measuring slight variations in skin color caused by the blood flow from the pumping of the heart) or measure your sleep cycle with a smartphone under your pillow that detects subtle movements in bed through the course of the night.

Nanotechnology” was another word that popped up in several conversations at the Global Spa Summit.  Kenneth Pelletier (Clinical Professor of Medicine at University of Arizona,) for example, talked about nanotechnology pills being developed that you will be able to swallow so they can measure internally what is going on with your body and send via Bluetooth a variety of health metrics back to your computer or smartphone.

Another new personal monitoring technology that got quite a stir at the summit was the development of USB keys that you urinate on before inserting into your computer.  Software can then perform a urinalysis based on the uploaded sample and can provide detailed health information.

Some people have taken these ideas to extremes, measuring and tracking as much of these metrics as possible and sharing information via social media or using the data to inform their decisions in creating the best possible life for themselves.  The website “Quantified Self: Self Knowledge Through Numbers” gives information, videos, and a conference to help people track a variety of statistics to bring new meaning to the idea of “the examined life.”

Tim Ferriss’ recent best seller, The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman, shares his tips for improving health and performance based on his own individual research experimenting with personal biological monitoring.

Until recently, athletes have been the primary users of these technologies because most of these systems require a certain amount of motivation to use.  And then once the data is collected, a certain amount of knowledge is required to know how to use the information.  Athletes are one of the few segments of the population that are both motivated to improve their performance, and knowledgeable enough about physiology to know how to interpret and use the data.

According to the trends experts at Global Spa Summit, (for example, David Browning, CEO of Somasigns, Philips Consumer Lifestyle in the UK) the next generation of technologies will be more accessible to a broader base of consumers.  No longer will you have to strap on a monitor, use an app, or (God forbid) pee on a USB key.  The technology will be integrated into your everyday lifestyle. 

In the future your clothes will measure your heart rate and activity levels (e.g., in this TED video on quantified self monitoring, Gary Wolf reported that Apple has filed for a patent to allow their earbud headphones to measure heart rate, body temperature and blood oxygenation), your toothbrush will measure your dental health, and your toilet bowl will analyze your urine for health and nutrition information.

And the technology will get better at translating the data into useful guidance for users, so consumers won’t have to interpret the data themselves.  As funny as it sounds, it is easy to imagine a near future where your toothbrush can tell you when to go to the dentist or your toilet bowl can tell you which vitamin supplements to take.

It is exciting to think of a future where health information is in the hands of the individual and not in the hands of elite medical gurus with access to expensive equipment.  Personal biological monitoring could be the key to moving towards a system of positive health and prevention rather than the disease management system of today.

References and recommended reading: 

Ferriss, T. (2010).  The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman.  Crown Archetype.

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13 Responses to Personal Biological Monitoring: The Future of Health Diagnostics

  1. Lisa Sansom May 31, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    I don’t think I could quite bring myself to insert a peed-upon USB key into my computer… or swallow nanotechnology… but some of the other advancements sound intriguing! It does bring one thing to mind though, and that is the continued march towards more independent self-reliant monitoring of the data. Given the R in PERMA, and how we really are at our best and happiest when in relation with others, I do wonder if this self-monitoring (along with other trends away from people and towards increased self-reliance) are healthy or progressive. We do need to remember that we don’t have to do it all alone, whatever “it” may be. And that sometimes, working with others in safe, secure, caring partnership could be healthful in of itself – without peeing on the USB key. 😉

  2. Sara Firman May 31, 2011 at 7:15 pm #

    And to think, I imagined you’d all be soaking up the ambiance of Bali’s natural and spiritual beauty …

    You know, I think there is a contradiction between your opening suggestion ‘modern technology is giving us new tools to measure our health ourselves’ and ‘the technology will get better at translating the data into useful guidance for users, so consumers won’t have to interpret the data themselves’. Sounds a bit like the old elitism in a shiny new guise.

    If you view your body as a machine that can be interpreted by other machines and controlled to the n-th degree then I suppose this could be attractive. I suspect that our bodies are more complex and interrelated though, existing in a field of constantly fluctuating energy, and capable of a far more subtle rebalancing than any machine could interpret or dictate.

    I could see such tools as potentially beneficial when used with full awareness of limitations and the skillful interpretation and respectful guidance of an intuitive and sensitive practitioner. If monitoring demonstrated how incredibly sensitive we are, with an inherent capacity for self-healing that depends on the health of our environment and all other living things in it … then perhaps we’d be more inclined to live in ways that supported that.

    Should we (can we truly) depend on technology to tells us what it takes to live well?

  3. Jeremy McCarthy June 1, 2011 at 8:14 am #

    Hi Lisa,

    I’m really glad you brought up PERMA. To a certain extent, this article is somewhat “off brand” since I ran up the word count before I ever had a chance to talk about the psychological ramifications. However, there is also a growth of technologies to measure psychological wellbeing (or the intersection where physical and psychological wellbeing meet.) One example is the emWave2 by Heartmath which measures heartrate variability and provides some biofeedback to enable users to mentally lower their stress response by tapping into the physiological occurences in the body.

    I also think you bring up a great point about relationships. Working in the spa industry, I think working with a nurturing healer who actually lays their hands on you is important and something that is in jeopardy of becoming endangered with the advent of new technologies. I love books by Thomas Lewis who talks about the evolution of medicine over the last century and notes that something was lost with the advent of the stethoscope. When his father was a physician he used to lay his ear to the chest of his patients and there was something about that gesture that instilled calm in the patient as well as securing a more intimate bond between a patient and their physician.

    That being said, Lewis also notes the great advances that technology have brought and so sacrifices in some areas are traded for progress in others. I don’t think these technologies necessarily require a reduction in real personal connection. In fact, some of these tools are designed to allow users to share their health status with others via social media channels and thus enlist the support of their social network. Think of Marty Seligman and his MAPP students using pedometers to count the number of steps they walk each day and then sharing the data and encouraging each other. This is an example where the technology can help people come together around common goals and provide support and encouragement.

    Great comments! Thanks!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy June 1, 2011 at 8:22 am #

    Sara, I so love the way your mind works. I think you bring up an excellent point (one worthy of an article in and of itself–you should write it!) I agree with you wholeheartedly but would add that our complexity and our intelligence will allow us to blur the lines with technology, using it to extend our individual ability to manipulate and relate to our environments.

    I love your comment about the “old elitism in a shiny new guise,” and it rings true to me, but I’m also confident that as we continue to evolve our relationship with technology, we will continue to break through old paradigms. Technology doesn’t have to replace human decision making, intuition, or self-healing capabilities, but perhaps it can enhance those things by helping us to increase the amplitude on signals that we sometimes find easy to ignore.

    Thank you for adding to the dialogue and for always bringing it back to the core of what is real. I’m so glad you are in the world!

  5. Sara Firman June 1, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    I’m grateful too for the opportunity to connect and technology makes that possible. Still, yesterday I came across three other articles that add important notes of caution.

    One, entitled China wants to drink our milkshake, discussed industry and water. Semiconductor materials are the foundation of modern electronics, and play a role no doubt in the biological monitoring mentioned. Their manufacture uses (and pollutes) enormous amounts of water. Without good water, there will be no healthy life to monitor!

    And then this one from within science discussing why there has been an epidemic of false claims in medicine and suggesting that ‘Increased investment in evidence-based clinical and population research, for instance, should be designed not by industry but by scientists free of material conflicts of interest.’

    Jill Davies, Director of plaintiff Sustainable Living Systems in Victor, Montana [organic farmers against Monsanto], said, ‘The building blocks of life are sacred and should be in the public domain. If scientists want to study and manipulate them for some supposed common good, fine. Then we must remove the profit motive. The private profit motive corrupts pure science and increasingly precludes democratic participation.’

    Even when I want to believe in the the beneficience of human inventions, I know that we must continue to ask what we (or the inventors) plan to do with them and if they will really bring the positive rewards for all that are being claimed. Could there be simpler, less pollutive, more nature-based (biomimicry) ways to care for life on our planet?

    I’m afraid we might be forced into it, when there is no clean water and no good food and no honest understanding left. Jeremy, I thank you for bringing these questions to me. YOU make me think.

  6. Marie-Josee Shaar June 1, 2011 at 10:12 am #

    Another great article, Jeremy! I had the same concern Lisa had, and then kept thinking along the lines you suggest above, that all that bio data would become another reason for discussing and bonding online. Taking this reflection one step further, I can already see tabloids on whose pee is cleanest, articles on the “secrets of a toilet bowl”, and books on how healthy pee predicts longevity… Here’s where I’m going with this: while I like the independence, accountability and power all this new technology will give, it will at the same time give us another reason to obsess over something body-related. Maybe in the future, rather than fuss over weight, we’ll obsess over some other health-related metric, which will create opportunities for more “miracle products” to be produced and marketed.

    Which takes me back to Sara’s point: can we really dissect the human body into separate (unrelated?) pieces? I don’t think so. We do it because we love numbers, and we love numbers because we think we can manage them. Just like organizations who only devote resources to initiatives that measurably impact the bottom line hurt themselves in the long run. But because something doesn’t benefit the bottom line in a measurable, cause and effect manner doesn’t mean it’s not worthy (think employee health, customer loyalty,etc). So I really hope we don’t make the same mistake when it comes to our bodies…


  7. Sara Firman June 1, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    Since you mentioned HeartMath earlier Jeremy, I thought I would share this new post on my aquatic therapy blog talking about my own use of their monitoring tool 10 years ago now. I wrote there that ‘It would be a wonderful research project to conduct studies by recording this coherence using the new emWave2 system from HeartMath before and after aquatic sessions’, AND … it is important to note that the tool can only support and confirm the healing process that is already going on. I don’t think it can ever replace that.

    Read more:

    I’ve added a link to the discussion you’ve generated here to that post … all good challenges to our future thinking.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy June 3, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    Hi Marie-Josee,

    Good point about the potential for consumerism and superficial obsession to take over. Obviously you are tuned in to these issues because of your work around diet and exercise. In my own industry, the growth of medical spas that are focused on the superficial appearances of aging is a sign that your concerns are well founded.

  9. Jeremy McCarthy June 3, 2011 at 3:42 pm #

    Hi Sara, Your article was really interesting. Also amazing how we both got to Heartmath on the same week on our blogs. Great minds thinking alike? Heart rate variability is an unknown concept to most people today. I think five years from now it will be one of the most important health metrics that people think about.

  10. Miquel Mcclaren August 29, 2011 at 7:50 am #

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts.You have a great Blog!!! I just added you to my Google News Reader. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.


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