Chances are you own a smartphone. You also may be one of millions who own a smartwatch. The rise of smartphones, smartwatches and similar wearables is changing the way we live. They track many things about us like how active we are and what we eat. This is exciting because doctors could use these devices to modify behavior to help people lead healthier lives.
Our big goal is to establish a center dedicated to building and testing mobile health (mHealth) apps. If successful, mHealth apps could change patient care in remarkable ways. Consider the example of HeartSteps, a mHealth app built by our team. HeartSteps wants to make you move more. It is installed on a smartphone and paired with a fitness tracker. It monitors how many steps you take as well as your location, weather, and time of day. HeartSteps uses this information to make dynamic, tailored suggestions for physical activity. These suggestions are personalized to fit your current situation. Unlike other mHealth apps, you are not asked to walk outside when it is raining. Or to plan an exercise routine during work. We have a similar mHealth app to help you eat better called LowSalt4Life that alerts you to eat better when you walk into a restaurant.
In early studies, we found both apps change short term behavior. But we have a lot of questions that remain about their effectiveness. For example, we do not know whether people start to ignore them over time or if they lead to better clinical outcomes (like lower blood pressure).
At the University of Michigan, we have started a center to answer these questions about mHealth. Our center is the Wearables In Reducing risk and Enhancing Daily Life-style (WIRED-L) Center. It will design and test mHealth apps using the best science. We also will study them in diverse communities that include African Americans and older adults rarely included in mHealth studies. Learning about mHealth in these groups can close the digital divide between rich and poor.
Finally, we will study mHealth in a way that will let others build similar apps. It is hard to set up information technology systems to study mHealth. After finishing a study, most IT systems are discontinued and future researchers have to build them over again. We will stop this “one-and-done” problem.
The AHA wants researchers to make an “extraordinary impact” with an “equity-first” lens. We are excited because mHealth has this potential if designed well and for everyone. The WIRED-L Center will achieve this goal.