The other day, I was listening to my friend Chris’s podcast, “Just Talking,” as he had a conversation with another friend, Nick. Nick works in healthcare design, and one of his many wonderful traits includes his significant focus on patient needs and patient-centered design. The conversation between Nick and Chris shifted to technology, and how it can promote better health outcomes for conditions like asthma. As someone who lives with asthma, my ears perked up!
Smart technology and condition management
Asthma, on the whole, is extremely “behind the times” in terms of technology. The majority of smartphone apps for asthma are reiterations of other apps, with maybe one or two differentiating features. Personally, I haven’t found an asthma self-tracking app that works for me. And as someone who loves Quantified Self and could, with enough time, create a graph of my Fitbit step data from January 2012 to present, the lack of innovative asthma management technology is super frustrating.
One thought Nick brought up that really resonated with me is how useful artificial intelligence could be for people with asthma.
For example, what if your digital assistant (be it Siri, Alexa, or Cortana) proactively put your flu shot on your calendar? What if they analyzed flu trends and modified your schedule to stay away from public transit at peak times to avoid contracting a communicable illness?
Even better, what if this stuff was logged automatically, and an alert popped up on your phone, or you got a text saying, “Hey, your asthma got worse last time the pollen count was over [x number].” Or, “Hey, it looks like you’re at so-and-so’s house, and usually you need your inhaler here. How’s it going?”
There is an intricate balance between the stuff in the air we breathe, the things around us, our activities, and how our lungs respond. The sheer number of variables involved in asthma, which impact everyone differently, make it nearly impossible to trend that data — environmental and otherwise — against our symptoms, medication use, and activity.
People living with asthma could truly benefit from responsive, personalized technology, but so far, there's nothing novel out there, nothing to take real data and make it predictive and actionable.
In the type 1 diabetes space, for instance, certain apps can detect whether you have a high or low blood glucose level at certain times of the day, so you can tweak your insulin dosing accordingly. Why haven’t we yet tapped into this science for those managing asthma?
Hacking a better solution
Though I’m no expert, I tried hacking together my own solution for quantifying my asthma (with no coding knowledge). While I had a lot of nerdy fun, it made me realize that the solution for me isn’t out there yet. But I do know it’s possible to create with the right people doing it. Here are some factors that would make an asthma management app really helpful:
More passive data collection and automatic tracking
Whether pulling in air quality, pollen count, or other relevant data automatically, the more data my app can gather by itself, the better it can help people affected by environmental factors.
GPS use to make data more precise
If I could “drop a pin” on places I visit regularly, this might allow me to identify trends in my symptoms. Do they get worse when I visit this particular park? What about when I’m at my favorite movie theater (where the seats are probably dustier than I’d like to imagine)? Knowing this information could help identify triggers I never realized existed before.
Compatibility with other data-collecting devices
I already wear a Fitbit, so I'd like to see asthma tech more open to collecting this and other data, such as from MyFitnessPal, or even mood-tracking apps. It could be vital in understanding how much activity makes my symptoms worse.
Less cumbersome medication-logging
Logging is a pain, especially if you take inhalers multiple times a day. Right now, you need to swipe to unlock the phone, tap to open the app, select a medication tab, select the medication, enter the dose, and submit. That's six or more taps just to log one dose. But what if you could do this in fewer steps? What if your app could find patterns in your medication-logging to prompt you with questions on how much you took that day? If you’re logging every day, this shouldn’t be that hard to do.
Some research has certainly been done to improve asthma management using mobile health solutions, but the reality is, we're just not there yet. And I'm watching the asthma tech world closely! If inhalers have only changed slightly in the last 30 years, maybe it's time to shift our focus to what we see changing around us every day: technology. What do you think?
Kerri MacKay is a Canadian, writer, quantified self-er, and ePatient with ADHD and asthma. She is a former hater of gym class who now holds a Bachelor of Physical & Health Education from the University of Winnipeg. She loves airplanes, t-shirts, cupcakes, and coaching goalball. Find her on Twitter @KerriYWG or KerriOnThePrairies.com.