PITTSBURGH (AP) — On the first Wednesday of each month at the Pittsburgh Quantified Self meetup group, about half the attendees are curious newcomers. Others seek answers to a persistent chronic problem.
"They have something blocking their lives that they're attempting to come to grips with," such as a sleep or digestive problem, said Anne Wright, one of the group's organizers.
And that's when the tracking begins: recording diet, exercise, body temperature, and even sweat production, in a journey to feel better.
Self-tracking is a core tenant of the quantified self movement, which teaches self-awareness and discovery through data. Recent advents in technology, including "wearables" on the body or clothing, can help record and make sense of the information.
Such technology could take a mainstream turn with the impending release of Apple Watch in early 2015. The device, costing $349, will come preloaded with a self-tracking app called Health. The program will monitor weight, heart rate and other body measurements. Another app, Health Kit, can help connect that information to other apps and programs.
Some experts say wearables can lead to meaningful changes in health and medicine, if the data are used correctly. Dr. Gus Geraci, consulting chief medical officer with the Pennsylvania Medical Society, called the emergence of wearables "explosive," especially as companies such as Apple get into the field and products such as FitBit become more popular.
"The more user-friendly they make it, the more data there is," Geraci said.
Patients who track how much they run, for example, have reliable information to provide their doctor about how much they exercise. But practical uses depend on the context, Geraci said. For busy doctors, it can be a question of resources.
"The challenge for physicians is that you get overwhelmed with data," he said. "Do you really need 24 blood sugars in a day period? Is that helpful?"
The wearable technology movement is in the stage of early adopters, even if self-tracking is a common practice. The Pew Research Center Internet & American Life Project found in a January poll that 69 percent of American adults keep track of one health indicator such as weight, diet or changes in the body. About 20 percent of those who track health indicators use some form of technology, the survey found.
One of the most popular wearables is called FitBit, aimed at consumers who want to be more active. One model is a brightly colored wristband that tracks steps, distance and calories burned, and connects wirelessly to smartphones to let the user see the data. Wright, who runs the BodyTrack program at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University, said that although the information can be useful, the product lacks data portability to combine with other programs.
Self-tracking can help patients who find themselves in a diagnostic black hole, Wright said. Keeping a record of diet, sleep and activities — and discussing them with others in a community forum — can reveal patterns.
"It allows you to not be in the role of the patient, but in the role of explorer, the role of investigator," she said.
In San Francisco, Dr. Paul Abramson runs My Doctor Medical Group, a private practice built around using self-tracking for individualized treatment. Patients meet with coaches on a weekly basis, using apps that collect and store personal data.
But collecting such information means little without the time and resources to analyze it, Abramson said.
"Looking at the data every week, you can start to get a story and track some meaning," he said. "It has to be a part of a process."
He hopes to see Apple's new Health app allow patients to customize how they use their data, leading to more individualized health care. But for consumers, Abramson said the novelty can wear off from self-tracking devices if they don't have a goal.
"It has to start with the problem or the need to be motivated first, then look at what that tool is going to be," he said. "You don't start with the gadget and then come up with a need for it."
Jia Ji is the CEO at MediMaps, a medical globalization firm that focuses on developing wearables for doctors and surgeons to use. He owns several wearables, including Google Glass. Up until Apple's announcement, such devices were far from the mainstream, he said, in part because they might look too futuristic. Apple Watch, he said, could change that.
"It's a more subtle kind of tech that kind of blends and feels more natural," he said. "With the Apple Watch, it's going to be this thing where it kind of slowly encourages you to be healthier."
Information from: Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, http://pghtrib.com