oh, hai

Stephen Murray

engineer, dog fanatic, erstwhile vagrant

Wearable Tech? No Boon For Public Health

If you don’t work in reasonable proximity to startups or technology industries writ large, you may have missed recent verbiage surrounding a trend of new devices making their way into the hi-tech zeigeist: wearable technologies.

We’ve been hearing hyperbole to the tenor of “Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone”. I don’t take issue with statements like this (however unfounded, a priori, and speculative they may be) because I have been duly surprised in the past with both hardware and software innovations that took off despite my grumblings about their relative lack of perceived utility or importance.

The healthcare industry, particularly the healthcare startup industry as of late, has propped up this trend as the next big thing in augmenting patients’ health. Notwithstanding the absurd deference given to palliative vs. preventative medicine here, I feel that this sentiment completely misses the mark when it comes to addressing the problems we presently face in the public health sphere.

The Real Problem

I have staunchly maintained the personal position that nutritional mythology is the greatest enemy we face today in this country with respect to health and longevity. Given that the leading cause of death in the United States is almost entirely lifestyle-influenced and that other lifestyle-related diseases like cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity are on the rise (and cost us millions of dollars as they encroach); we need to narrow the set of problems we’re willing to throw our innovation muscles towards fixing.

Technological innovation isn’t all bad — using wearable tech to more closely monitor a cardiovascular diseased patient’s biomarkers is an amazing addition to our toolkit for treating an already sick individual, I absolutely can concede that much. But that does nothing to address the problem of a relatively healthy young person being told by the FDA, AHA, et al. that a “heart-healthy” diet is rich in whole grains and low in saturated fats (modern science knows how wrong this presumption is). That information has likely doomed that young individual to a lifetime of disease, weight problems, and at best suboptimal quality of life. But hey, at least they have some wearable tech to look forward to donning down the road?

A Better First Step

Before we go down the rabbit hole of solving problems like wearable innovation, consumer adoption of said tech, healthcare integration, etc; would it not be more prudent to fix the vulgar misinformation campaigns? If so, where do we start?

Instead of relying heavily on oft-maligned, problematic conclusions gleaned from nutritional epidemiological studies or in vitro studies, I submit that we turn our attention primarily to the results of better research such as randomized controlled trials. Correlation is not causation and we need to start respecting that fact. This is drawing the line between bad science and good science. Or if you think that statement is a little loaded, at the very least I would consider it drawing the line between science which is useful in forming a testable hypothesis and science that actually tells us something valuable about human nutrition. In this sense, we’ll be starting with much better seed data to inform the conclusions we draw and the guidance we give the public.

The shift in focus towards better, more valid nutritional studies could be combined with wearable tech in the future for sure. Imagine a device that could scan a given food product and subsequently inform you about its biochemical effects — e.g. Is this food likely to cause an insulin spike? What is the macronutrient breakdown of this food? What is the essential nutrient density of this food? Etc.

Of course a solution like that absolutely needs to be sourced from valid data of the type I have delineated above, not correlative observations. Otherwise, we’re back where we started and the population will continue to get fatter, more unhealthy, and drain the fiscal coffers of our nation dry.