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Are Smartphones Changing What It Means to be Human?


In Are Smartphones Changing What It Means to be Human?, Janelle Nanos explores the new generation of health apps and programs being developed by behavioral scientists. But when she finds herself feeling uncomfortable entering calorie data in her new diet app, Janelle ponders: I thought these apps were supposed to be giving us control over our lives. But here we are, feeling beholden to them, feeling guilty in their presence.

"Nagging is still nagging, whether it comes from your phone or your mom," says Jessie Gruman, a social psychologist who heads the Center for Advancing Health, a patient-advocacy group out of Washington, DC. Gruman is a four-time cancer survivor who's tried nearly every program on the market to help keep her weight up after she lost a portion of her stomach to the disease. But she gets so frustrated with the apps with how time-consuming they are, or how generally annoying they become that she's deleted more than she can count. Because we think of our phones as tools that serve us, it's disconcerting to find ourselves responding to their demands, she says. "We like our relationships with our devices to remain constant and uncomplicated."

Read the full article on the Boston Magazine website


More Blog Posts by Jessie Gruman

author bio

Jessie C. Gruman, PhD, was founder and president of the Center for Advancing Health from 1992 until her death in July 2014. Her experiences as a patient — having been diagnosed with five life-threatening illnesses — informed her perspective as an author, advocate and lead contributor to the Prepared Patient Blog. Her book, AfterShock, helps patients and caregivers navigate their way through the health care system following a serious or life-threatening diagnosis. The free app, AfterShock: Facing a Serious Diagnosis, offers a pocket guide based on the book. | More about Jessie Gruman

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holtza says
April 11, 2012 at 5:58 PM

One thing I worry about is that these apps can further exaggerate the relevance of surrogate or intermediate outcomes to our health, so that we are pushed to produce the best lab test results, instead of living the most healthful lives that fit with our goals and values.

Too many patients are already obsessed with the test. For example, a survey of people with diabetes found that one in four considered their hemoglobin A1c levels to be a more important outcome than even death, stroke or heart attack!
(Murad MH, Shah ND, Houten HKV, et al. Individuals with diabetes preferred that future trials use patient-important outcomes and provide pragmatic inferences. J Clin Epidemiol. Jul 2011(7):743-748.)

Such distortions occur when the first thing clinicians talk to their patients about is their test results. Patients know they'll get gold stars for good lab tests and a harrumph for missing the mark.

Sure, people with diabetes should be aware of hemoglobin A1c, heart attack survivors should track their LDL, and so on. But we should not let these numbers consume our attention far out of proportion with their actual usefulness to promoting health.

Smartphone apps are great at tracking numbers, but can any track how many times we smile in a day, how we were touched by friends and family, whether there's a spring on our step?

Numbers can be useful, but what number is health?