One reason detective stories are so exciting is that they challenge our greatest possession, our brain, to keep up with the savvy, sophisticated, and immersive mind of the detective. Detective stories are usually about macroscopic criminals but when it comes to health, most criminals are microscopic, and this makes them even trickier to apprehend. There are many professionals that wear the “health detective “ hat including traditional and natural doctors, nurses, therapists and other health care workers, as well as fitness professionals such as personal trainers and coaches. But no detective can complete their mission if too many pieces of the puzzle are missing. Currently the clues related to health are often extremely difficult to uncover, and a new breed of Tech Health Detective is looming on the horizon.
There are many amazing case histories in which doctors properly fill the role of health detectives and health advocates for their patients, painstakingly tracking symptoms and clues to piece together a hypothesis of the root cause in order to eradicate it and restore health. In The Art of Diagnosis Maggie Mahar included an excerpt from Clifton Meador’s book “True Medical Detective Stories”, in which a woman was experiencing severe neurological symptoms due to a microscopic criminal in her home (see link if you like detective stories ).
Other times doctors are overwhelmed by the number of patients they have, and by the number of possible causes of illness and cannot chase down all the possible culprits behind individual’s symptoms. In these cases, doctors tend to resort to their mantra of treating the symptoms in the hope that this will help the patient feel better while their body heals. In cases like this, individual’s can now begin using mobile tracking apps to help with the search for clues leading to apprehension of the culprit.
One such tool that I have been trying over the last 20 days is mySymptoms from StarGazer Labs. This app appears to be one of a kind for the Android platform although there appears to be a similar app named Symple available for the iphone. mySymptoms allows the user to track events such as meals, medications, exercise, environment and symptoms and then correlate symptoms to events. This is not a simple task given the number of possible culprits related to symptoms but one can add customized symptoms and events into the mix. I find this app to be well worth the $1.99 that I paid for it. However, it does require a lot of patience to enter all the data and the correlation engine may need to allow some tweaking. This app is a good preview of what the future will bring for Health Detective apps.
In the future, the data entry bottleneck will need to be dealt with more effectively for this technology to be widely adopted. This can be done through the use of voice data logging, visual identification of foods, integrated photos of skin for tracking acne, and integration with other fitness apps. Other nice additions to the this type of app would be 1) Separate long term symptoms from short term symptoms since it is not helpful to enter durations for chronic symptoms, 2) Make sure all events, including environmental exposure, have a numerical rating 3) Tally an overall health score for each day based on data entry and compare to the perceived score for the day, 4) Some symptoms such as the occurrence of a canker sore, can persist for a week or two, and one should not have to enter it every day, these sort of symptoms once entered should persist until the severity drops to zero indicating that the problem is resolved.
The mySymptoms app is a great start down the path towards improved Health Detective Technology, but there is still much work to be accomplished before the Health Detective Apps can stroll with the likes of Sherlock.