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A man wears a Moto 360 by Motorola, an Android Wear smartwatch, on the demo floor at Google I/O 2014 in San Francisco.
Associated Press/Photo by Jeff Chiu
A man wears a Moto 360 by Motorola, an Android Wear smartwatch, on the demo floor at Google I/O 2014 in San Francisco.

Google has your browsing history, now it wants your medical history

Health

Google is the latest technology powerhouse to throw its hat into the personal health arena. Google Fit, unveiled Wednesday, is the company’s version of a personal health information ecosystem that can gather data from wearable sensor arrays—like a smart watch—and collect it on your computer, your phone, or in the cloud.

Google tried this once before with Google Health, but shut it down in 2012. The company claimed at the time that consumers simply weren’t interested in accumulating and analyzing health data. Things have changed. A new digital arms race to capture your health data has begun.

Earlier this month, Apple, Microsoft, and Samsung announced software and hardware targeted at the burgeoning market for wearable health monitoring devices and personal health data aggregation software. Apple is even working with the Mayo Clinic to provide feedback when a user’s readings are out of whack.

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Amazon has added a “Wearable Technology Store” filled with devices to feed the myriad of new voracious healthcare data-crunching apps. The explosion of “wearables” began with the Nike FuelBand and the fitbit, which are basically high-tech pedometers that track your steps, calories burned, and sleep patterns. They then synch that information with your computer or smartphone.

Newer devices, like Apple’s iWatch, are in the pipeline and may include sensors to monitor heart rate and sweat composition. Blood pressure, body temperature, glucose, and even alcohol sensors are rumored to be future possibilities. Star athletes like Kobe Bryant have been spotted at Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and are rumored to be testing iWatch prototypes.

Smart shirts are the newest development in wearable technology. Embedded sensors can bluetooth a real-time heart rate or EKG to a phone or the cloud.

These are exciting new tools for anyone who wants help develop and maintain a healthy level of fitness, and take personal responsibility for managing his or her own health. But the potential applications of this kind of data gathering are unlikely to stop at the personal level.

Bill Maris, managing partner of Google Ventures, suggests collecting and pushing realtime digital medical data into medical records. “Medicine needs to come out of the dark ages now,” he said in an interview with <re/code>.

Instead of vital signs recorded only during an office visit, doctors could review a continuous information feed. Alarms could be set to provoke immediate action for acute problems. Subtle, long-term patterns could be more easily spotted. Such information would become part of a permanent electronic medical record.

Public health experts dream about government access to such large volumes of data. Big data is the key to spotting trends, anticipating societal health problems, and instituting preemptive action.

New Yorkers didn’t like it when city officials tried to ban their large sugary sodas. How will the rest of America respond if this kind of meta-data generates a new set of politically correct health rules, regulations, and taboos?

Mark Russell
Mark Russell

Mark is a freelance writer and practicing physician living in Hot Springs, Arkansas with the love of his life who also happens to be his wife of 39 years. Follow Mark on Twitter @msrmd.

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