Pew: Most US adults track health data but few use digital tools

By: Brian Dolan | Jan 28, 2013        

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Early screenshot of Basis Band's dashboard

Perhaps surprisingly, a majority of American adults track their own health data, however, most aren’t using digital technologies to do so.

About 69 percent of US adults track at least one health indicator, according to a national survey called Tracking for Health, conducted by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. About 60 percent of US adults track weight, diet, or an exercise routine, while 33 percent track another health indicator like blood pressure, sleep patterns or headaches. Some 12 percent of adults track health indicators for a loved one.

Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Pew Internet Project, told MobiHealthNews that this survey was the first broad national survey to look at health data tracking and as such her team didn’t know what to expect. They made the decision to ask all adults about health tracking — not just Internet users — in part because the 65+ population is (as a group) more likely to not be online but also more likely to have (at least one) chronic condition that requires some level of tracking.

“Seven in ten American adults are tracking health data, which sounds like a huge number until we follow up with the “gotcha” question of ‘How are you tracking?'” Fox explained to MobiHealthNews. “It turns out that half of trackers say they are keeping track of progress just in their heads. They don’t write it down, they don’t use a device, they don’t keep a spreadsheet. Half are just tracking in their heads. One in three say they are tracking on paper, like in a notebook or journal. One in five say they are using some form of technology, whether a medical device like a glucometer, or a website or a spreadsheet — any kind of technology.”

Perhaps surprisingly, this digital tracking adoption rate — about 21 percent of American adults — is similar to findings from a question featured in a 2010 Pew survey: “Our survey finds that 15 percent of internet users have tracked their weight, diet, or exercise routine online. In addition, 17 percent of internet users have tracked any other health indicators or symptoms online. Fully 27 percent of adult internet users say yes to either question.” While the rates are within one percentage point when the margin of error (2.5 percent) is considered, it’s clear no matter how you interpret this data that the number of people who use digital health trackers has not increased over the course of the past two years.

Interestingly, men and women are equally likely to be tracking their weight, diet, or exercise routine in some way, while non-hispanic whites and African Americans are more likely than Latinos to track those basic health indicators. Older adults are more likely then younger ones to track weight, diet, or exercise routine, and so are people with higher levels of education.

When it comes to other health indicators, women and men are still equally likely to track, and African Americans are the most likely ethnic group to track these health indicators, too. What’s more, older adults are more likely to be tracking.

“We didn’t have time in this survey to allow people in their own words to tell us why they were tracking,” Fox said. “We did come up with three impact statements and people could tell us whether they agreed or didn’t agree. We asked whether tracking has affected their overall approach for maintaining their health or the health of someone they cared for. We asked whether their tracking has led them to ask their doctor new questions or to seek a second opinion. We also asked whether tracking has affected a decision about how to treat an illness or a condition. What we find is that these turned out to be pretty good statements. There were many people who agreed with at least one of them.”

People who are living with two or more chronic conditions were especially likely to say that tracking affected their overall approach and that it led them to seek a second opinion or ask a doctor new questions, Fox said. Three quarters of trackers who are dealing with two or more chronic conditions agreed with at least one of those impact statements. That is compared to about half of those who don’t have a chronic condition, she explained. That might be one reason why people spend time keeping track of their data: About a third of trackers share their data with someone else, and of those who share, about half share with a clinician.

Fox was somewhat surprised to see that about two-thirds of people living with two or more chronic conditions said they tracked a health indicator or symptom. She wondered going into the survey if it would be higher since Pew’s data shows that hypertension and diabetes are the two most common conditions that people are reporting if they have two or more conditions.

“Those are two chronic conditions that really require tracking if you are going to effectively manage your high blood pressure or diabetes,” Fox said. “It is really on you to try and figure out how to keep track…. We don’t have any data about whether people are doing it on doctor’s orders, but it was interesting to me to see that the amount of sharing is not that high.”

The report is chock full of interesting stats, (read the full report here), but many questions remain.

Will this data help open up a conversation between doctors and patients about tracking? Do doctors know that this many people are tracking health data? Have they asked their patients about tracking? Now that we know there are a significant number of people who are tracking “in their heads”, can we figure out a way to entice them to use a digital health tracker?

While the data indicates a substantial baseline for what could be a promising trend, the number of people who are using digital means to track health data has remained flat (or even dipped slightly) since the 2010 survey. That unmoved trend line is reminiscent of the flat 10 percent adoption rate of health tracker and management apps that Pew published late last year. Will overall digital health tracking be stuck in a similar adoption limbo?

  • suzie mitchell

    This is a real dilemma. Is it because the apps are too difficult to use? We know tracking in one’s head isn’t accurate, so why is this occurring? More discussion is needed from users

  • Erick Kinuthia

    Best post Brian. But doctors need to advocate use of social media especially in marketing of their medical services.

    Erick kinuthia

    Team MDwebpro.com

  • Jack J Florio

    One question to ask is “Who am I tracking the data for?”. There are beginning to be a number of examples, such as the MediSafe project ( http://bit.ly/V55kio ) which have demonstrated that, in this case with medication compliance, sharing the data with loved ones or caregivers can result in the personal interventions to make a difference. But to make this happen, the systems will need to be digital and seamless to the caregiver. We are beginning to see more tools and apps like this being created

  • Jack J Florio

    You asked, “Can we figure out a way to entice them to use a digital health tracker? I think one trend that will increase digital tracking is sharing. There are platforms like Independa, MediSafe Project and others where the data is being collected – and even encouraged – by a family member or caregiver who had a personal interest in the health and wellness of the person being tracked. It closes the feedback loop in real time by someone who cares.