5 Ways to Track Your Personal Health Information on Your Phone

Your smartphone is a powerful and flexible tool for capturing information related to your health. There are various ways that your phone can do this, such as the popular apps or devices described below. Some apps span multiple categories, allowing the user several avenues for capturing health information.

woman using health tracker on her phone
Victor Torres / Stocksy United

Manually Enter the Information

This is the most primitive way to track your health information, whether it’s your blood pressure, weight, blood sugar, energy level, or medication list.

You can use your phone's native apps (e.g., Notes on iPhone) or a cloud storage service like Dropbox or Google Drive. Evernote can be used to store just about any type of information, but it's also integrated with health sensor devices (see below).

Tracking diet and exercise is easy with the MyFitnessPal and SparkPeople apps. (Like many other popular diet and exercise apps, they also offer other ways to track your information, such as nutrition barcode scanning and linkage with activity-tracking devices.) Particularly, people following a restrictive diet might want to track their nutritional intake to ensure they remain healthy. Cronometer is an example of an app that analyzes your daily meals and calculates if you are getting a sufficient amount of minerals, vitamins, proteins, and other nutrients based on your activity levels.

Capture Information With the Phone’s Sensors

The sensors built into your phone can automatically capture selected types of health information when they are linked to suitable apps.

Thus, the apps take advantage of the phone's stock hardware to deliver specialized health-related functions.

A popular example is tracking physical activity. Numerous apps (e.g., RunKeeper) use the phone's GPS to track outdoor activities like running or walking.

A handful of apps (e.g., Zombies, Run!) also harness the accelerometer to track indoor activities like treadmill running, which would be impossible to measure with the GPS.

Sleep Cycle Alarm Clock uses the accelerometer, with the phone placed under your mattress, to monitor the depth of your sleep. The manufacturer claims that the app wakes you up within a 30-minute window of a light sleep phase.

However, the quality and depth of sleep do not always correlate with movement, especially for people with sleep disorders.

The camera is another useful sensor. Azumio's Instant Heart Rate app measures your heart rate when you place your fingertip over the camera lens. It works by sensing slight changes in the color of your fingertip which occur with each heartbeat. A few apps use the camera lens to estimate the oxygen saturation (concentration) in your blood, but they tend to be poorly rated in app stores, with users noting that the readings aren't accurate when compared to dedicated oxygen saturation sensors.

As mentioned above, many nutrition apps use the camera to scan food labels and import the calories and nutrient content into your food log. This is a quick and painless way to track food, as long as the products you’re eating have labels.

Capture Information With a Separate Health Sensor

While the smartphone itself is a wonder of modern technology, its greatest potential for health tracking may lie in the ability to connect to separate sensors.

Here are a few devices you can connect with your phone to track health information:

  • Activity trackers like the Fitbit, Jawbone, Spark, and dozens of others
  • Blood pressure monitor
  • Glucose meter
  • Pulse oximeters for measuring heart rate and oxygen saturation
  • Weight scale
  • Heart rhythm monitor, like the FDA-approved AliveCor device
  • Peak flow meter for monitoring asthma control

Comprehensive platforms like Apple's Health app make it easy to tie all this information together.

Link to Your Electronic Health Records

Much of your health information may be stored in electronic health records (EHRs) maintained by your healthcare providers.

Many EHRs now allow patients to access information stored in EHRs, such as vital signs, medications, test results, appointments, and visit summaries.

You can access these through a patient portal on your phone or download it with the Blue Button function. It is also possible to transfer data from a smartphone to your EHR. However, it is not yet completely safe or flexible to do this directly. Experts suggest using a method that involves a dedicated gateway server.

Keep a Lifelog

Lifeloggers are committed to recording all their behavioral activities, such as exercising, sleeping and eating, and storing large amounts of personal data. First lifeloggers were recording their lives manually. Smartphones can now capture data automatically and produce lifelogs spanning over a few years. Gordon Bell is perhaps the most well-known lifelogger. A former researcher at Microsoft, Bell wore an automated camera around his neck for years. His aim was to capture and store all recorded data and develop machine-enhanced photographic memory. Although he stopped with the experiment, he influenced many of the subsequent lifeloggers. Lifelogging apps can help you keep track of your life and health throughout the year. For example, Instant is an automatic lifelogging companion that you can use to log your life, including places you go to, fitness activity, sleep and time spent on your phone. All data is put on your dashboard. You also receive weekly reports and have access to a chatbot coach that helps you interpret your data. If you want to be more specific about what you want to capture, Journaly is another lifelog option. This app automatically records time, date, place, activity, sleep, and weather, but you can customize it and add fields and notes that are important for you. For instance, you can record the food you ate, your gym attendance and whether you meditated or not on a specific day.

Users’ Experience With Personal Data Tracking

Although smartphones are ubiquitous now, not all people show the same openness to new technologies. Also, people differ in their motivations. Some use trackers to reach a health goal, others to earn incentives or out of pure interest in technology.

Studies show that new users are different from experienced users when it comes to tracking data. Researchers Amon Rapp and Federica Cena of the University of Torino, Italy, found that naive users often don’t manage to integrate tracking devices into their daily lives. After the initial phase of curiosity, tracking fatigue can become apparent in this group. New users are not very motivated to work with their data and don’t necessarily look for solutions that could make data work for them. Rapp and Cena argue that new design strategies are required if we want people to track their health behaviors on an ongoing basis. A study about the users’ perception of apps conducted by Michigan State University also suggested that acceptance could be higher if health providers recommended apps to their patients. However, it is not clear yet how receptive health professionals are to new data tracking technologies.

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Article Sources
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  1. Rapp A, Cena F. Personal informatics for everyday life: How users without prior self-tracking experience engage with personal data. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 2016; 94:1-17. doi:10.1016/j.ijhcs.2016.05.006

  2. Peng W, Kanthawala S, Yuan S, Hussain SA. A qualitative study of user perceptions of mobile health apps. BMC Public Health, 2016; 16(1):1-11

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