By Yves Noel Wu, Master of Public Health, Lund University
“The Quantified Health Movement”
We live in a world of data abundancy, in which we are now able to track and measure our own movements, intakes and even behavioural acts¹. With the increasing efficiency and popularity of smartphones and wearable devices, an ever increasing amount of people are now aiming to gain deeper insight about their daily routines and take control of tiniest details within their habits². This stunning, yet also concerning development of continuous self-tracking and measurement has been described by many as the “Quantified Self” movement, and it might already seem familiar to many of you.
The term itself represents self-knowledge through self-tracking, as stated by the founders of the movement, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly in 2007. Although the amount of data that we can measure may be abundant, is it does not depend on how much we collect, but rather what we can collect, that is of potential meaning to our lives³. So where exactly is the importance of Quantified Self for Public Health?
The provision of health care in the industrialized world is currently undergoing a transformation. With increasingly more people collecting information about the time they wake up or go to sleep, the amount of calories they consumed or spent, the aim is not only to live a more active, but also a health-conscious life. Individuals can utilize the information to better manage their own health, but it may also benefit health care providers, e.g. to support medical decision-making or even public health research¹. For many countries, this could eventually lead to a shift in paradigms from the physician being responsible for someone’s health to the patient being responsible for his own well-being⁴. By using our technological advancements, we can not only predict health risks, but also follow the dynamics of disease development in depth, to create targeted therapeutic approaches, that are tailored to the needs of every individual⁵. Could this potentially bring a solution for the constantly growing health care spending attributed to an aging population and the rise in chronic health conditions?
While many are convinced by the philosophy of empowerment that is introduced with Quantified Self, others remain sceptic to the variety of promises it holds. Given the multitude of possibilities for self-tracking, the effectiveness of these technologies have rarely been studied¹. This problem is not solely due to the recent upcoming of many technologies, but also due to a lack of biological understanding about our own bodies, in which many processes, e.g. nutrient uptake or energy spending have not been fully comprehended yet². However, the most pressing issue is the unhindered access for new technologies to monitor individual habits and vital signs⁴. Most mHealth providers advertise an asymmetric relationship between the user and the application, strongly emphasizing individual empowerment through self-knowledge. With the increasing acceptance of self-monitoring, however, we may give rise to a completely new and complex system of mass surveillance¹. If not governed properly, the Quantified Self Movement may not lead to individual empowerment, but instead to the oppression of privacy, freedom of speech, or even to the organized profiling of select individuals without or knowledge.
- Sharon T. Self-Tracking for Health and the Quantified Self: Re-Articulating Autonomy, Solidarity, and Authenticity in an Age of Personalized Healthcare. Philos. Technol. 2017;30(1):93-121. doi:10.1007/s13347-016-0215-5.
- Zeit Online. Quantified Self: Die 10.000 Fragezeichen. http://www.zeit.de/wissen/gesundheit/2015-04/quantified-self-fitness-gesundheit-wissenschaft. Updated April 20, 2015. Accessed May 30, 2017.
- Quantified Self Institute. What is quantified self? https://qsinstitute.com/about/what-is-quantified-self/. Accessed May 30, 2017.
- Ajana B. Digital health and the biopolitics of the Quantified Self. DIGITAL HEALTH. 2017;3(11):205520761668950. doi:10.1177/2055207616689509.
- Snyderman R. Personalized health care: from theory to practice. Biotechnol J. 2012;7(8):973-979. doi:10.1002/biot.201100297.