Let’s pretend you don’t know how to swim. Now let’s imagine I take you to the middle of a lake, drop you in and tell you to find your way to shore. Every day, that’s how society approaches the challenge of improving people’s health. We drop people into the proverbial lake and expect them to swim their way out. It’s no wonder so many people are drowning when it comes to lifestyle related illness.
We as individuals have an immediate opportunity every day to live a healthier life, primarily by decreasing food intake and increasing physical activity. We’re fortunate to live in a time where doing those two things alone might be enough to live most of our lives illness-free. So what’s going wrong? Why is it that 40% of all deaths in the United States are still at least partially the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices?
Aliens landing on earth would judge from our most popular restaurants, beverages, and pastimes that we were a very unhealthy society. But that’s not totally our fault. There’s also a critical lack of infrastructure to help us change that. Doctors advising Type 2 Diabetics on the required lifestyle changes still rely on printed pamphlets. And there is no cost-effective place for doctors to refer patients in desperate need of more regular physical activity.
It’s simply expected that people will know how to change their lives for the better. But eating well and being more active are no longer abilities we can assume people have. After three decades of failure with ab-rollers, thigh-blasters, fruit cleanses, and diets, we need to give up on lifestyle change solutions that so often let their users fail. The estimated 9,000 consumer health apps available in Apple’s App Store could have an impressive influence on people’s lifestyles. Each has an enormous responsibility—far greater than the apps in other categories—to ensure a successful experience for its users. We cannot continue to overestimate people’s abilities to change themselves. Simply put, some people could use some help changing.
The problems with our existing health system present an opportunity. Free from the regulatory constraints of government or the resource constraints of device and pharmaceutical development, a new breed of companies is helping individuals to succeed at being healthy. Genuine innovation is emerging in three main areas: data capture, software, and scalable human services.
Devices like smartphones, Fuelbands, and Fitbits are capturing increasingly insightful data, giving us instant feedback on our health, from how we eat, sleep, and exercise, to our heart rates, blood pressure, and stress levels. For those seeking more complex data about themselves, companies like Wellness FX, 23&Me, and Sano Intelligence are offering the chance to look at our own individual blood chemistry and DNA and make healthier choices based on that info.
On top of those data capturing devices, companies are building software to help interpret this new wave of information and make it relevant to the end user. While most consumer health companies offer a dashboard of some kind, companies like Massive Health and Nike are leading the way in user experience.
Finally, people are adding a human layer on top of these applications, putting the power not just in the hands of the consumer, but in the hands of their network. This provides an incredible resource to doctors, trainers, and others who help people achieve their health goals.
Companies like Sherpaa, the text and email focused on-demand health plan, Bud.ge, the mobile health improvement company and my own company, Sessions, are seeking to build scalable systems which leverage the power of human engagement to help people solve their health problems and live healthier lives.
Companies in all three categories are still evolving rapidly. The technology is going to progress faster than we realize. Soon we’re going to be drinking milkshakes containing microchips that can feed back to us the state of our physical selves in real-time. And as we reach that point, the most productive health change you can make is to exercise a little better or eat a little more mindfully.
Failure in health care is no longer a neutral event. Picture the non-swimmer being dropped into the middle of the lake. How likely is it they’ll voluntarily seek out that experience again, if given the choice? Nothing—not Obamacare, not your physician or your local government representative—will have anywhere near the impact on your health that you can.