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A few years ago Goetz went back to get his Masters in Public Health at the University of California, partly to get time to reflect on why the information technology which has transformed other industries hasn’t had the same impact in healthcare. In the meantime “The Quantified Self” community emerged, partly fostered by Kevin Kelly a founder of Wired Magazine, which began to to advice when they are genuine participants in the doctor-patient relationship; and new technology tools which enable people to monitor their own health and behaviours, and reflect on them with others in online communities. In the following interview Thomas Goetz spells out the two big trends which are radically re-shaping how patients, doctors and governments act on health, and how these trends will change communications.
“All sorts of things. all sorts of decisions can be turned into data.”
The Curve: Can you give an example of the limitations of the current information process in the healthcare system?
Thomas Goetz: An Institute of Medicine study found that it typically took 17 years for average research insights to make their way to the doctor’s office. So you have something that researchers prove and discover, and it takes 17 years for that to work through and become common practice. What I realised was that the power of information technology serves as a catalyst and what I started to detect happening when I wrote about it in the book has grown since.
There are innovators and entrepreneurs who are starting to use information technology to create tools for individuals. So people don’t have to wait, they’re not tied down by the normal conduits of information, they can get powerful information and tools that can help change the way they deal with their health. That has all sorts of trade-offs we can talk about but that’s what I was drawing on.
“People aren't just seeing the same old numbers, all of a sudden they are realizing why that data about themselves matters to their choices.”
In The Decision Tree you talk about this trend of ‘The Quantified Self’ and ‘Lifetracking’. Do you think that as much as there is a technological revolution which will allow us out make better decisions about our health, it implies a deeper psychological transformation, where people will engage with health and wellness holistically, as part of their everyday lives?
There are all sorts of tracking tools. “The Quantified Self” is the classic technology thing where a bunch of geeks start playing around with tools, sensors, databases, and spreadsheets and seeing what they can do. We can capture data and information about ourselves in ways that wasn’t possible before. All sorts of things, all sorts of decisions can be turned into data. Everything that we eat can now be logged quite simply.
It’s well known that tracking our food, keeping a food diary is an effective way to lose weight but it’s kind of onerous in that traditionally every time you have to dig out your pen and pencil and write everything down, it’s kind of tedious. The difference is now there are very simple tools you can use on your smartphone, they have menus of food already printed, they have them listed by restaurant, or if you are making your own meal you can do it by portion size. And it automatically enters and logs your calories and calculates it towards your personal calorie goals and that happens very easily and almost without effort. You are able to get a lot larger population using that technique. Getting to your point that this has to be more than data, first off, I was very enamoured thinking it’s just about the data, that ‘if we give people data it will change their lives’ and that turns out not to be the case.