Biometrics and Mobile Tech – Can It Help the Unhealthy?

If you are ever watching TV, particularly sporting events, you’ve probably seen commercials for wearable technology, devices that monitor your health, one footstep at a time. They judge things like heart rate, resting pulse, internal body temperature, even brain waves, as a way to monitor just how healthy you are being. We’ve discussed them before, and they are amazing. Just as amazing are the commercials. But what effect is biometrics and mobile tech having on the unhealthy?

The commercials are full of young, healthy people, getting out of bed before the sun even bothers to roust its lazy self and bounding down stairs just for the pleasure of running uphill. They are doing pushups and playing basketball and sometimes muttering between-breath slogans like “gotta keep moving,” all to a pleasant score of upbeat but still martial music. It’s pretty inspiring. I know that I would jump right up and join them, but, you know, the game is coming back on.

In a fascinating article for Wired earlier this month, JC Herz argued that wearables are failing huge key demographics, such as the poor and the elderly, by focusing their attention on young people who are already pretty healthy. Herz certainly doesn’t argue that biometrics are a bad thing – though he doesn’t praise them either – but says that mobile tech can go further and help people confront the real and systemic health problems that exist in society. Not only do I think he’s right, but I think we’re actually moving in that direction.

Smartphones as dowser’s wands: finding healthy food

By now, most people are probably familiar with the concept of “food deserts,” vast, usually (but not always) urban areas where there are no stores that sell healthy food or fresh produce. The Center for Disease control says there are no real estimates of how many Americans live in food deserts, because there is no strict definition, but there are many areas that can be counted as such.

From a strict economic standpoint, this makes cold and cruel sense – healthy food is generally more expensive and less affluent people can’t afford it, so why put a store there? This also helps create the perception that poor people don’t want to eat well. From a broader (and more moral) point of view, this doesn’t make any sense. The link between malnutrition and cognition is pretty well-established, as are the links between not having access to healthy food and general sickness and obesity. These are costly impacts to society as a whole, with devastating economic repercussions. So it doesn’t make sense.

There are ways to combat this, though. Obviously, there are huge systemic issues that mobile tech can’t solve, but it can help bridge that gap. Citywide data can be used to track which areas are designated by the USDA as areas in need of healthy food. This can be coordinated with rolling farmers’ markets and other locally-sourced, healthy, inexpensive food sellers to target neighborhoods in need. You can also alert residents to the presence and location of healthy food, and make sure that this isn’t just a one-time thing. Smartphones can point people away from terrible grocery stores selling junk and towards healthy and delicious food.

It opens up the power of choice. That’s the most important thing: it isn’t some kind of health-nut fascism to give people a choice. It’s restrictive and frankly anti-free market to deny them that, and to say that the low-rent grocery store is the only one they deserve. We can do better, and mobile tech can help.

Helping the elderly maintain control of their lives

The horror of aging is seeing those who came before you slide into deliquescence, sapped of their strength and robbed of their independence. It’s a cruelty for which we have few answers, but amazingly, mobile tech might be helping with one of them. A major problem with getting sick, and getting old, is the possibility that something could go wrong, which is why people need monitoring. You need constant checkups to make sure that things are going well, and that robs people of the ability to move or to travel.

Wearable tech can help to change that. Biometrics can track a person who is sick, and let doctors and nurses far away know if something is beginning to go wrong, or, maybe more importantly, that everything is all right. If you need a test once a day, or need your vitals constantly monitored, you were basically a prisoner, even if day after day you were all right. That isn’t the case anymore. Your vitals can be monitored and transmitted to a remote team, freeing you to be essentially anywhere. And if you do need something, your information can go from one mobile device to another, and any doctor in the country can help you.

This is a great start. Herz argues we need more systemic approaches to solving our health crises, including apps and tech that take on the less-glamorous, but ultimately just as important, tasks of helping us understand how to navigate the healthcare system. Because no matter how many hills you run or how well you balance your diet, you are going to get sick. It would be great if the same smartphones, tablets, and apps that kept your body up can help you when you get down, and help those who need it the most.

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