70 percent of Americans track their health, but most go low-tech

It may just be early adopter tech types who log every step they take or calorie they burn using Fitbits, Nike Fuelbands, and other devices, but that hardly means they’re the only ones who track their health.
About 7 in 10 American adults told the Pew Internet & American Life Project that they track a health indicator like weight, diet, exercise or a symptom. But despite growing buzz around the “quantified self” movement and the explosion of gadgets and apps that help people measure and analyze everything from their activity and sleep patterns to blood glucose levels and other vital signs, just a small slice of health trackers rely on high tech devices.
Indeed, according to the study released Monday, which was conducted via telephone and included 3,014 adults, nearly half of the trackers don’t use any kind of external tool at all.
Pew reports that 49 percent of the trackers said they track their progress “in their heads,” while 34 percent said they record the data on paper (for example, in a notebook or journal) and just 21 percent said they use some form of technology to track their health data. Respondents were allowed to provide more than one response, which is why the total is greater than 100 percent.  But Pew said it considers 50 percent of respondents to be “formal trackers” who log their data in an organized way with notebooks or apps and 44 percent to be “informal trackers” who only record progress in their heads.

A benchmark for the future

A Pew study from 2011 looked at the health tracking behaviors of U.S. Internet users, finding that a quarter of them track their health online. But Susannah Fox, Pew’s associate director of digital strategy, said this is the first national survey measuring health data tracking among the general population. As digital tools for monitoring health data continue to proliferate, this survey can provide a benchmark against which future progress can be measured.
“We’ve got this massive potential of a market and yet we still have relatively low uptake,” Fox said. “We don’t have the answers in terms of what will change their minds or entice them to change their habits. What we do know now is how many people are doing it and already what impact that is having. Maybe in the future, if people can be seduced to upgrade to fancier technology that will actually move the needle on their heath outcome.”

Implications for digital health companies

For companies pushing health-monitoring technology, Pew’s study could strengthen their case, as it shows that tracking can make a difference. For example:

  • 46 percent of trackers said it changed their approach to maintaining their own health or the health of someone for whom they provide care.
  • 49 percent said it led them to ask a doctor a new question or seek a second opinion.
  • 34 percent it affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition.

The report also indicates that there are several markets within health tracking that are ripe for the tapping.  Potential consumers span from casual health trackers interested in losing weight and improving their diet to those with chronic conditions to caretakers.
But the considerable number of people who seem content with taking the low-tech route means that digital health companies need to provide options that can compete with the convenience and familiarity of a notebook or the ease of just remembering information in your head. Developers and device makers are increasingly offering sophisticated health tracking and analysis technology. But, given that plenty of health apps are little more than digitized notebooks with minimal functionality, you can’t blame people who’d rather just scribble in a journal.
“The competition for mind share is not between different health apps,” said Fox. “It’s between health apps and a notebook and health apps and just your scale at home.”
You can check out the full report on Pew’s website, but here are some other interesting findings:

  • The majority of respondents – 60 percent – say they track their weight, diet or exercise, with older Americans reporting that they’re more likely to track these metrics than younger Americans. About a third track health indicators like blood pressure, blood sugar, headaches or sleep patterns, and 12 percent say they track health indicators for a loved one.
  • Those with no chronic conditions are least likely to say that they track health indicators (19 percent), while 40 percent of adults with one condition are trackers and 62 percent with 2+ conditions are trackers.
  • Younger adults are more likely to keep track of their data in their heads (55 percent of 18-29 year-olds vs. 44 percent of those 65-year-olds and older), as are men (54 percent of men compared with 44 percent of women).

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