In the name of personal health….

It happened all of a sudden. A scratch in my throat. A sudden need to take an early evening nap. A feeling of pressure and congestion in my head. It’s not often that I get sick, but when I do, I Google it.  I don’t have health insurance right now and I quiver at the thought of having to seek medical help if I really need it. And like many people, I rely on the internet to guide me in the right direction.  It’s often the case that we take our own health for granted until we get sick.

As a health and medical journalism student, I’ve been thinking a lot about my own personal health these days.  I’m 27. And while that may seem young, if you’ve been living life a bit haphazardly in your 20s, the health effects will soon become apparent.  For me, this realization came this fall when I returned to UGA for grad school and looked at photos of my skinny, younger self five years earlier in undergrad.

At the age of 19, I fought my own battle with the bulge, so to speak, and dropped my freshmen 15 and then some. I did it through Weight Watchers. And it was a great way to learn about nutrition and portion size.  But at that age, it was easy to just adhere to the diet and skip the exercise.  I lost 30 pounds without ever really incorporating much of a daily fitness habit. The importance of that program, though, is its ability to connect those who are striving for better health with one another. I worked for Weight Watchers for most of my college years, assisting in the arduous process of weighing customers, informing them of that weeks talking points, and encouraging them with some helpful suggestions when the going got tough. That being said, once I stopped working for them, I lost my focus on the importance of managing my own health and lost touch with a whole group of people that had helped me.

I managed to keep it off for two years after college, until the sedentary lifestyle of a desk job in a rural community slowly and eventually had its toll. Not having physical activity as a part of my daily life proved to be detrimental as my metabolism slowed down in my mid-20s too.  Since December, I’ve been seeing a personal trainer, eating a more balanced and calorie controlled diet and working out for three or four days a week.  The trouble is, even with all the social media interaction on health and ample access to science-based studies regarding healthy weight loss, I still lack motivation.

And this, my friends, is why social media is awesome.  I ran across this little tidbit in doing some research the other day and I have great hope in the ability of friends being able to help friends in their battle for better health. Weight loss, addiction, nutrition, mental illness, stress–we all have stories and we all have the ability to provide support to each other as we seek better health.

This was recently featured on the Facebook Developers blog. And it’s great motivation to create an app that could connect those with similar health goals or interest in a way that makes sharing seemless and frictionless, without much effort at all.  Since college, most of my good friends have moved away and are now located all over the United States. We talk by phone, send emails, communicate via Facebook, but a tool like this would really give us the incentive to encourage each other, share our experiences and share relevant web content about whatever it is we’re striving for.  Not too far in the future, a lack in motivation will soon be remedied by our trusty social network friends and mentors.

The potential of open graph facebook health apps

So, in looking at the latest wave of open graph Facebook apps, there is an obvious window for health companies, such as WebMD, to introduce a health app that would require minimal manual input on the part of the user.  Traditionally, health apps have required users to input data in order to really make use of the apps, but I’d say that the open graph is an opportunity to not only require less of users, but also give them more of what they want/need in the process.

As we discussed in class, open graph Facebook applications are becoming a great way for company’s to get more website and Facebook traffic and interaction.  Here’s the article on the success of early open graph apps that we talked about in class.  As you can see, the health category has nothing. Zilp. Zinch. Nada.  Another article I found talks about a whole slew of media companies that are jumping on board with the open graph Facebook app movement.  Again, there is no mention of a health-related website or app out there taking advantage of the open graph.  In looking again on Facebook, however, I did find one health-related category: fitness.  There are currently two open graph apps available to users: MapMyFitness and RunKeeper.

I also searched around online and found many, many mobile apps about health.  While most of them focused on food and nutrition, wellness and fitness, they require a lot of from users.  A user must actively want to log in and input information to gain anything from using these apps.

So why is there a delay in getting any sort of health app, beyond the fitness category, out there for users?  It seems like common sense to me.

The Facebook Developer’s website says this about what makes the original apps on the open graph worthwhile for users:

These apps have a few things in common. They’re built around something people care about and identify with, they enable people to share things they want their friends to see, and they provide easy ways to control the social experience.

This gives me a lot to think about in terms of a WebMD opengraph app.  Action words are the key and there are plenty out there to make use of. ConnectedHealth has this to say about the recently released fitness apps and the future of health apps via the Facebook open graph:

The MapMyFitness CEO gets it: “So, whether it’s to boast, find like-minded friends or just share your passion for fitness with your nearest and dearest, we think it’s great that MapMyFITNESS has been so quick to integrate its offering into the new Facebook Timeline, developing an app that makes sharing, collecting and monitoring health and fitness information easy. Just make sure you tailor your settings as soon as you start using the app, if you’re a fitness fanatic even your closest friends might not appreciate 20+ updates a day about your work-outs…!”

On another note, here’s a look at some links about mobile health apps.  Some of the apps are very specific, catering to just one specific health/fitness/wellbeing goal.  I think WebMD has the potential to do something a little more inclusive to “whole health.”

USDA “Let’s Move” Campaign Mobile App Contest

VitalClip: This is an app that actually monitors your health. So cool.  What if this was a Facebook open graph app?

ConnectedHealth: Here’s a list of apps compiled by ConnectedHealth.  There’s some really neat stuff on here.  And I think a lot of these apps will be better utilized using the open graph.

Health Apps on Facebook

As technology continues to improve and more digital applications are being created – the healthcare industry doesn’t want to be left in the dust. Since mobile health apps generated a revenue of 718 million last year , there’s very good reason to be very dust free.  Development of health and medical applications are opening new and innovative ways for technology to improve health and healthcare (or at least they hope so). There have been several studies about the actual effectiveness of these applications but I wanted to focus on what is already being offered out there on Facebook.

Most of the apps focus on three health categories: fitness, nutrition, and mind/body. Fitness apps allow you to keep track of your work out plans, create your own workouts and share your progress with your friends through Facebook.  Of course you only share the good stuff, right: whoops, forgot to post the bag of pizza-flavored cornnuts I just inhaled! The nutrition apps help keep track of nutrition goals – such as calorie counter, nutritional information, and recipes. The mind and body apps are created to help with emotional and mental health – with apps like “mind games” designed to keep your brain active.  And then further from the standard are more alternative choices, like zen/buddha apps that provide tips for mediation and inspiration.  There are also several apps that focus on relationships- these apps are suppose to help you develop better relationships with your friends, family, and loved ones.

I think they are off to a good start, trying to see what sticks and what stinks, but for now these apps are only applicable to people motivated to improve or change their health behaviors/habits, are actively engaging with the applications, or just straight technology-lovers. It takes a lot of time and effort to remember to log-in and enter the last thing you ate in your calorie count app (cornnuts).

I did a quick search of “health” apps on my Facebook – I didn’t find any apps that would be useful to myself or even seemed legit to health in general.

When I was more specific in my search terms, such as “fitness” and “nutrition”, I still was not able to find legitimate apps that I would feel comfortable giving consent to my information. Think back to the quiz apps: aka “what disney princess you are” – probably just an app taking your information for other people to use.  Don’t know about that?  Well it’s a whole ‘nother story.

I appreciate that there is a wealth of health information within our finger tips, but I know there is still work to be done beyond these superficial apps. Preventive care is very important in having a healthy life – and I think so far they are doing a good job of promoting that with exercise, nutrition and mental health. However, I think that as technology continues to excel, more apps can be created to help people with existing medical conditions, whether it’s keeping track of their prescriptions, or managing their diabetes.

Big Data, Health and WedMD

Well, I’m home from my trip to California to attend a conference on atrophic macular degeneration as a science writer.  The experience was unlike anything I’ve ever done before, I must say, but at the end of it all I found myself stepping back from all of the medical and scientific jargon and thinking about the big picture.  Atrophic macular degeneration is the biggest cause of blindness in people over 50.  That being said, studying the eye causes a significant challenge for researchers, as it’s next to impossible to take a biopsy from the eye as is possible when studying other tissues.

I sat in a room for three days with the genetics groups as they plotted their course for finding further evidence of the genetic risk of atrophic macular degeneration.  Approximately 50 percent of the genetic risk factors are known, thanks to recent findings in research, but geneticists are struggling to pin down the rest of this risk  because the tissue is difficult to get a hold of immediately following a patient’s death and the remaining genetic risk factors are likely to be rare and varying, requiring a larger collection of population data to find any sort of genetic pattern.  The solution?  My group suggested an eye tissue bank as a means for collaboration with other research studies to collect an aggregate of genetic knowledge about AMD that will hopefully show patterns in genetics to help locate the rest of the genetic risk.

So…what’s the big deal?  They’re using all of this data to find a cure for this disease.  And it got me thinking about the future of big data and healthcare.  I’ve been assigned WebMD as my company and while I’m up to the challenge, it certainly seems like a murky subject.  Thanks to regulations protecting patient data, connecting this data socially via Facebook seems to have created a particularly tricky position for companies like WebMD. There’s no Facebook Connect option with the WebMD website. And they reached 100,000 Facebook fans today, despite being one of the top health websites.

They recently released a very popular app for the iPhone called WebMD baby. And they do have personalized health record keeping and a weight loss and food tracker with a WebMD account.

The Washington Post had this to say about the future of healthcare and big data. It seems that no one has been able to crack the code in terms of getting people to participate who are both healthy and combating an illness, an issue that can be problematic if you’re trying to analyze data for replicable use in science.

The frictionless approach of Facebook, at least for WebMD, could prove to be useful, at least in terms of health and wellness at a preventative level.  I’ve been thinking about the possibilities.  How can people’s actions and reading preferences be used in a way that is both useful and helpful to them, without necessarily advertising embarrassing or otherwise private health conditions to all of your friends?  With the new action settings, does Facebook have the potential to monitor your healthy and unhealthy actions based on status updates.

Say you post a status update about your lack of sleep, over-consumption of coffee and general stress from grad school. (That’s every other Facebook status for me.)  If I were WebMD, I could refer you to articles that provide basic information on how to combat stress in a healthy way, the health effects of not getting enough sleep or the negative or positive effects of drinking lots of coffee.  WebMD has a treasure trove of health information at hand, and while much of that content is there ready for a user to find it, a lot of people go to WebMD to use the symptom checker when they have a cold or to seek out further information if they’ve recently been diagnosed with a disease. This would provide personalized content based on your reading habits.

But what if WebMD could keep you on track for staying healthy and give you recommendations based on your actions to help you live a more healthful life.  Would this work?  Would people use it?  I don’t know.  But it would A. give the user a benefit of better health information and B. give WebMD more hits on its website, which results in better leverage to attract advertisers.

WebMD isn’t selling the company anymore, so that’s somewhat positive news.

However, I’m not entirely sure that using Facebook is a solution for WebMD beyond preventative information.  Big Data, it seems, is the wave of the future for healthcare, as genomic data and medical histories are aggregated and used to provide personalized medical care based on genetic risk, etc. People sharing their medical histories and genetic data via social media, for me at least, is the ultimate line for the creep factor.

Incorporating something like this new NYT project could be useful for preventative medicine and WebMD perhaps. Imagine having some sort of facebook app that allows you to set health goals, allows the WebMD app to monitor your actions, likes, and readings and then gives you personalized recommendations on healthier actions, or different scientific-data related stories to provide a differing perspective on health based on some other health article you read (science is, afterall, written in pencil, not pen).

Looking forward to feedback from anyone here.  I’d give WebMD access to my habits in exchange for a preventative medicine  Personal Health Coach, so to speak.  Would you?  Let me know your thoughts and comments please.  Sorry for the long post.  It helps to type all of these thoughts out.