Whether they have chronic ailments like diabetes or just want to watch their weight, Americans are increasingly tracking their health using smartphone applications and other devices that collect personal data automatically, according to health industry researchers.
“The explosion of mobile devices means that more Americans have an opportunity to start tracking health data in an organized way,” said Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, which was to release the national study on Monday. Many of the people surveyed said the experience had changed their overall approach to health.
More than 500 companies were making or developing self-management tools by last fall, up 35 percent from January 2012, said Matthew Holt, co-chairman of Health 2.0, a market intelligence project that keeps a database of health technology companies. Nearly 13,000 health and fitness apps are now available, he said.
The Pew study said 21 percent of people who track their health use some form of technology.
They are people like Steven Jonas of Portland, Ore., who uses an electronic monitor to check his heart rate when he feels stressed. Then he breathes deeply for a few minutes and watches the monitor on his laptop as his heart slows down.
“It’s incredibly effective in a weird way,” he said.
Mr. Jonas said he also used electronic means to track his mood, weight, mental sharpness, sleep and memory.
Dr. Peter A. Margolis is a principal investigator at the Collaborative Chronic Care Network Project, which tests new ways to diagnose and treat diseases. He has connected 20 young patients who have Crohn’s disease with tracking software developed by a team led by Ian Eslick, a doctoral candidate at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Data from their phones is reported to a Web site that charts the patients’ behavior patterns, said Dr. Margolis, a professor of pediatrics at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Some phones have software that automatically reports the data.
Patients and their parents and doctors watch the charts for early warning signs of flare-up symptoms, like abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, before the flare-ups occur. The physicians then adjust the children’s treatment to minimize the symptoms.
“One of the main findings was that many patients were unaware of the amount of variation in their symptoms that they were having every day,” Dr. Margolis said.
The Pew survey found most people with several chronic conditions said that tracking had led them to ask a doctor new questions, led them to seek a second opinion or influenced their treatment decisions.
Mr. Holt said self-tracking products and services companies formed the fastest growing category among the 2,100 health technology companies in his database. He said venture capital financing in the sector rose 20 percent from January through September 2012, with $539 million allotted to new products and services for consumers by Sept. 30.
He attributed the rise to a “perceived increase in consumer interest in wellness and tracking in general, and the expectation that at-home monitoring of all types of patients will be a bigger deal under the new accountable care organizations,” as President Obama’s health care law takes effect.
But even an enthusiast like Mr. Jonas said he saw “a dark side to tracking.”
“People who are feeling down may not want a tracking device to keep reminding them of their mood,” he said.