I have an addiction to my smartphone. It helps me to navigate not only the streets of my adopted home city of Manchester, but life in general; everything from banking to shopping, scheduling, videoing, networking, dating and, on occasion, making phone calls. And it helps me to monitor things, like my patterns in exercise, diet and sleep. I’m the type who posts annoying screenshots of their step count on Instagram after a big night (#danceallnight). To some this could seem a somewhat unhealthy, yet common, obsession. However, I’m keen to learn how our increasing attachment to technology can actually help to generate new insights into health and disease and benefit others.
You see, your smartphone is a sort of digital Swiss Army knife, jam-packed with vital sensors and tools that collect, process and transmit all manner of data. Furthermore, it’s a constant companion, always on and always with you, effortlessly tracking your everyday routines. To researchers like me, who would otherwise have to dedicate significant time and effort to collecting these data themselves, smartphone apps are appealing, inexpensive tools for generating a wealth of high quality data on everyday life on a mass-scale. Moreover, this type of ‘big data’ could hold the key to better understanding and treatments for many health conditions – like seasonal allergies, dementia and Parkinson’s.
One area where patient data is currently lacking is seasonal allergies. Allergies are basically the result of the body’s immune system ‘misfiring’ and incorrectly responding to harmless substances or ‘allergens’, such as pollen. These allergies are very common in the Western world. One in four people will experience an allergy at some point in their lives and this number is increasing. However, the causes are unclear. Dr Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at The University of Manchester, explains the situation: “The rise in seasonal allergies like hay fever could be down to all sorts of things – such as changes in pollen exposure, pollution or maybe a lack of childhood exposure to germs. We have good quality data on many of the suspected causes but we don’t know how people are actually being affected. Gathering real-time data on a mass-scale about when and where symptoms occur could really help to change all of that.”
A nationwide study is currently underway to fill in these blanks and try to better understand seasonal allergies, all using a smartphone app called #BritainBreathing*. Allergy sufferers act as ‘citizen sensors’, using the app to keep a daily log of their symptoms (or lack thereof) like sneezing, itchy eyes and wheezing and track them over time. The app automatically does the rest, automatically sharing anonymised reports with the research team, with a time-stamp and approximate location.
Whilst sometimes trivialised, hay fever symptoms can be severe for some people and it is often associated with other conditions, such as asthma and eczema. Caroline, now 32, has had all three since childhood: ” I’ve had eczema since I was a baby, then I got hay fever and asthma later on around primary school age. At one point I was constantly on antihistamines.” Could a smartphone app help people like Caroline get a better handle on what their triggers might be? “When you’re young everyone else manages it for you, but when you get older you need to build up a picture in your own head to start to think about triggers: what is it, where was I, what was I doing at the time? Everyone carries their phone around now so that would be a good place to start.”
Indeed, decoding data has been key to other recent breakthroughs in the world of allergy research. Whilst big is often beautiful, advances in statistical methods have arguably been just as important to unlock the insights hidden within the data. For example, combining data from several long-term studies (which collectively tracked almost 10,000 children from birth) helped researchers to question the stereotype of the so-called “allergic march”; a supposedly classic progression of symptoms starting in childhood, beginning with eczema, then progressing to wheeze and finally hay fever. Using sophisticated analysis techniques, researchers showed that individuals fall into one of several ‘profiles’ and that this classic sequence is much less common than once thought (less than 7% followed this pattern). Findings like these appear to strengthen the case for acknowledging how variable patterns of allergic conditions can be, with slightly different symptoms and trajectories.
Teaming smartphone data with data from research studies like these has, to date, been an area with largely untapped potential. However, researchers are increasingly recognising the opportunities in bringing together different sources of data – including smartphones, wearable fitness gadgets and medical records – to shed light on diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s. For example, the 100 for Parkinson’s project invited people to use a smartphone app to track aspects of their health (including sleep quality, mood, exercise, diet and stress) for 100 days and donate their data to research.
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing. Some have expressed concerns about the quality of data, the ability to produce meaningful analyses and safeguarding personal information. However, the ability to work with the public to build large datasets to allow us to gain insights into both health and disease states mean that it’s an option increasingly being considered by a large array of scientific and medical fields. Is the smartphone the future of health research or is the challenge of disentangling the complex data generated by constant tracking more trouble than it’s worth? We’ll just have to wait and see. I, for one, think it’s an opportunity too big to pass up.
*The free Britain Breathing app is available on the App Store and Google Play now.
Post by: Lamiece Hassan