By Ashley Needham, Senior Director, Corporate Initiatives, Validic
There are roughly five and a half centuries between the time the printing press and smartphone were invented. However, both of these tools dramatically changed the way technology could serve humans with information. Over time, the printing press enabled books to be mass produced and humans became better educated by simply gaining access to information.
Similarly, coupled with the Internet and cellular advancements, the smartphone gave us a computer with endless sources of information at our fingertips. Over time, the smartphone has transitioned from requiring us to pull information – to search out and consume content – to pushing information regularly to us. News alerts, movie recommendations, motivating tips for nutrition – all are presented seamlessly to us without much intervention on our part. Digital tools in particular have accelerated the ways in which humans can use technology.
And, behind the scenes, really driving this rapid acceleration is data. Data is truly powering the human experience (for many people) in 2018. Ninety percent of the data in the world was generated in the last two years alone. As machine learning and AI advance, data in its application becomes even more powerful to enhance and advance our ability to educate, heal, support, grow, and connect to people around the world. So, how do we better harness this data for meaningful advancement of our health and wellness?
When I was a 22 year old living in Knoxville, Tennessee, I went to my ObGyn for an annual check up. In my early twenties, I started experiencing a lot of pain, severe anxiety, night sweats, and so many weird symptoms that I often joked with friends and family that it was early menopause – my body was catching up to my middle-aged mind.
After speaking briefly with my doctor about my experiences and how these symptoms were increasingly affecting my quality of life, she told me this was something many women faced and was fairly common. As she left the room and a nurse came in to take my blood, I remember being confused. Many women were as unhealthy as me? Their quality of life suffered like mine? What do I do about it? Could I do anything about it?
When my doctor returned, she handed me a pamphlet and three sheets of paper with various prescriptions on it. She went over how the medication would help with each of my symptoms individually and spoke briefly to how hormones affect reactions in the body. I don’t know if I said anything in return, but I’ll never forget how I felt in that moment. Confused. Terrified. Powerless. Abandoned. I was not a person, I was a case – to solve and to treat. My doctor left the room, and shortly after, so did I. I looked down at the pamphlet and began reading as I was walking out of the building.
I had a pamphlet that highlighted – in five bullet points – how my life has changed and could change. It didn’t tell me why this was happening, how I could control it, or what steps I should take next. Just that my collection of symptoms had a name. And, two of those bullet points in that glossy pamphlet would forever haunt me. The first: I, the person reading the pamphlet, suffered from a condition that meant I was 50 percent more likely to get ovarian cancer. The second: it was unlikely I would be able to have children.
Next, I did what every person does when they are desperate for information that no person in our inner circle can provide – I went online. Now, add devastation to the list of emotions I felt. Even after researching, I found very little that told me how to react, what to do, how to move forward with the information I had now received. It felt like an inevitable sentence that I had zero control to affect.
In that moment of despair and frustration, I felt abandoned by my doctor. I lost trust in her and my provider. And, I became an absentee patient. I disengaged from my own health because I didn’t know how to manage it. And, overtime, it worsened. Over the years, I found a community of people online experiencing the same condition and as that community grew, so did my insight on how to affect my condition. Like so many other chronic conditions, diet and exercise were at the top of the list for behavior change. But, I learned that sugar, because my condition caused me to be insulin resistant, was particularly important to control. However, this insight came later, after I was diagnosed as prediabetic.
The diagnosis was mostly unsurprising. My energy goes into work, and things like meal planning and gym time weren’t a priority. I think we can all agree that life can be demanding. It demands a lot of energy sometimes. And, we can sacrifice our health as a priority to make time for the other things that feel more urgent. I’m guilty of this behavior, and the more I opened up to people about this, they admitted they were guilty of it too.
When I was handed that pamphlet, all I wanted was insights, education, stats, and facts. I wanted more information. Actually, I needed more information – my quality of life depended on it. But, I didn’t receive a plan from my provider on how to heal, just how to manage. As a result, I have had to work and am still working to understand how my food, sleep, and activity each day affect my condition, how they affect my blood sugar, and how they affect how I feel. I have to track and review my own data to make adjustments to my lifestyle. It would be life-changing to have a partner in this process to help determine those behavior changes or to share insights on anatomy that I do not possess. I hear from people regularly, and echo the same sentiments, take my data, and help me heal in return.
We share our data everyday – knowingly and unknowingly. To websites. To companies we purchase from. To everyone listening in on our phones. But arguably, the most important data we’re generating– our health data – is going nowhere. And, to no one.
We can be fueling wellness programs with this data. We can be powering chronic condition management programs with this data. Years after my diagnosis, I found out my odds for avoiding cancer could increase with a focus on nutrition and exercise – and I learned how connected and integrated every aspect of health truly is. What if I had learned that as soon as I learned about my condition? To some, that might be a “duh” statement. But, today’s healthcare system as a whole, is not set up to treat the whole person. I didn’t have the insight to know better, and as you know, you can’t do better until you know how.
Now, I walk to work, because my watch told me I needed to do more activity. I go to sleep earlier because my phone signals my bedtime. I manage my sugars because I have to understand how much I consume. And, I could have started all of this earlier, if I had the education and the program to help me change my behavior, to know what actions to take and why, and to really address the core issues before they progressed to developing a second chronic condition.
This is not a new or unique story; sadly, one condition worsening into another (and for many, another and another) is common for people with chronic conditions. We don’t always have the tools to support us, and it candidly comes down to making it a priority to figure it all out. It takes time and energy, things that not everyone has the privilege to borrow from amidst their day-to-day priorities and responsibilities.
These kind of data-driven programs can affect health on a massive, global scale. Data + Technology + People can cure and prevent disease. In tandem, these pillars of our society today can improve human ingenuity and advancement. When used effectively together, they can help build a generation of mentally and physically healthy people. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to create such a system that uses the best tools at our disposal to educate, heal, support, grow, and connect.