WHEN Socrates wrote that the unexamined life was not worth living, he could not have imagined just how over-examined our lives would become.
When we’re not keeping track of our Facebook friends or measuring our online influence score via Klout, we can be collating and sharing the most mundane details with anybody bored enough to take notice on Twitter and other social networking sites.
And just when you think it’s impossible for our species to get any more self-obsessed, along comes the Quantified Self movement.
Described as “self knowledge through numbers”, QS sees devotees collecting and analysing data about themselves, with a particular focus on health. In typical geek-speak, these people talk about “hacking” their bodies to access hidden information.
The movement has been made possible by the ubiquity of both social networking and powerful portable computing — that smart phone you have in your pocket.
A range of relatively inexpensive apps can transform a phone into a medical device delivering minute-by-minute data on everything from sleep patterns to heart rate, all of which can be shared with thousands of your closest friends.
If you have ever sighed inwardly at the sight of a patient clutching a wad of print-outs resulting from a Google search for their symptoms, you might need to prepare for a new deluge of information.
Computer-generated graphs showing a self-monitoring patient’s every vital sign for over the past 6 months are only a heartbeat away.
Dr William Maisel, from the US Food and Drug Administration, last year told an industry workshop it was estimated there would be 500 million people using health-related apps on their phones by 2015.
Having informed patients who are concerned about their own health is a good thing and the technology offers obvious potential benefits.
Melbourne’s Alfred hospital has put out a free men’s health app that includes a symptom checker and links to useful information.
In the next few years, we are likely to see increasingly sophisticated offerings for patients with chronic disease, allowing them to do everything from monitoring their blood glucose, to tracking the onset of migraine or asthma symptoms.
And, for health professionals, apps that are or soon will be available can effectively turn a phone into an ECG machine, an ultrasound reader, or an autorefractor.
The advantages of this new technology in making health care more portable and less expensive are obvious, especially for people in the developing world.
As with any other medical device, apps designed for professional use will need to be regulated, something US regulators are currently examining.
But those risks are manageable.
The real risk, it seems, is beyond the reach of any regulator — that in constantly examining our lives we forget to actually live them.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
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