Quantified Self: A Beginner's Guide for Healthcare



  • Simply defined, quantified self is tracking exercise, calories, etc. using technology. 
  • In health care, we need to do a better job of making health information more understandable, usable, and available.

There are so many good things happening in healthcare, but, at times, we just make it more complicated than it needs to be. A case in point: A movement is underway called the quantified self. But what are we quantifying and why? And what does this have to do with health care?

Google “quantified self” and you will find meetups, conferences, blogs, and many articles. There were even two recent SXSW sessions on quantified self. However, if you ask your fellow shoppers in the grocery checkout line whether they are quantified selves, you may get some strange looks!

Quantified Self Defined

Here is the definition of quantified self, as highlighted in Wikipedia:

“The Quantified Self is a movement to incorporate technology into data acquisition on aspects of a person's daily life in terms of inputs (e.g. food consumed, quality of surrounding air), states (e.g. mood, arousal, blood oxygen levels), and performance (mental and physical). Such self-monitoring and self-sensing, which combines wearable sensors (EEG, ECG, video, etc.) and wearable computing, is also known as lifelogging or sousveillance.”

Simply defined, quantified self is tracking exercise, calories, etc. using technology. Wearable sensors can even be lifesavers for those who must keep certain measures in the right balance.

You can learn much, much more on the Quantified Self website.

Why Should We Care?

When I was in business school, I never looked forward to my accounting or finance classes. Numbers and formulas seemed scarier than dealing with strategy and people challenges. Then, in one of my entrepreneurial classes, our professor told us to just think of numbers as a way to tell a story. He was right. Numbers have a way of telling a story about a business – healthy or not – and whether the rhetoric matches up to the reality. Numbers deliver insight and serve as a narrative.

The same approach can be applied to our personal health. Our numbers tell us:
•    How well we are losing or gaining weight
•    How our calorie intake is more than it should be
•    How far we walk in a given day

We can say we are healthy. However, if we are overweight and our blood sugar is high, we clearly see a split between the story we are telling ourselves and measured reality. If we are brave enough to track our health numbers and strong enough to change them, our story will contain many healthy victories.
Quantified self is more than numbers; it is our personal story. Tracking gives us insights into how actions and inactions change our plot and motivation to keep our story on a healthy path. 

Taking the Quantified Step

Anyone can be a quantified self, as every life has a health story waiting to be told.

Here is what I have been doing; perhaps it can serve as a guide to kick-start your quantified self: 

Tracking Calories

It is so easy to snack our way into a few extra pounds. I am guilty. There are many free calorie tracking tools and apps, including MyFitnessPal and Sparkpeople. Tracking my calories has delivered insights. It shows I can eat more when I exercise. Screen shot from Sparkpeople.com

In understanding your health story, start with your calories. You’ll gain discipline through the numbers highlighted each day.

Tracking Movement

I exercise several times each week. Through running and some weight lifting, I seem to be doing OK, at least in my thoughts. I have started carrying a device that tracks my steps. If I look at my numbers toward the end of the workday and see fewer than 4,000 steps, I know I need to go for a walk or run that evening.

It is easy to feel like we are getting enough exercise, but what we “feel” and what we “do” may create a reality gap. It did for me. Devices such as Fitbit and Fuelband can help us bridge that gap.

Tracking Health Information

We need to record some of the basics of our annual physical exams and our family health history.

When a physician’s office asks for your family medical history, some of it begins to blur over time.

There are two elements to track here: our personal health statistics from physician visits and our past family history. Using a personal health record such as HealthVault is the best way to do this. However, if it is easier to record this information in an electronic document or spreadsheet, then do that instead.

Our family medical history is valuable for personal use as well as for your sons and daughters. At some point when they are visiting a doctor, they will be glad to have the family health history accurately recorded because it will save them time and may help in diagnosis.

It is important to quantify and track past health statistics and history, delivering a greater health biography for future generations. 

Take the Step

In health care, we need to do a better job of making health information more understandable, usable, and available.

Begin to use numbers in tracking, developing, and telling your healthy life story. Motivate yourself for healthier outcomes. Enlighten future generations as they embrace their health story.

A key question to embrace and answer is: What story do your numbers tell?

Image: Some rights reserved by IntelFreePress.



The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily The University of Texas at Austin.

About The Author

Jon Mertz

Vice President of Marketing, Corepoint Health

Jon Mertz is the Vice President of Marketing at Corepoint Health, a leading healthcare integration software company. Jon has extensive experience in...

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