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Op-Ed: Can our toys make us healthier?

Professionals estimate America’s health literacy (that is, understanding of health terminology and ideas, and using them to make healthy decisions) to be at around 12 percent, with nearly a third of adults struggling to follow doctor instructions or medication labels.

When a patient doesn’t understand the core language and concepts of health, going to the doctor will be of little help. After all, it is up to the patients themselves to make the day-to-day decisions and behaviors to maintain or regain health. Doctors may prescribe medications, but patients have to follow directions for the drugs to function correctly.

The problem is compounded by the subtle shift in society away from health as a matter of science, knowledge, and education, and toward a fad-based element of modern fashion. But this very element of fashion in fitness may also be spurring a shift in popular notions about being healthy.

Grocery stores are packed with women, in full make-up, adorned with yoga pants and moisture-wicking, high-tech athletic tops. The athletic-chic look of basketball pants, cross-trainers, and name-brand exercise apparel proliferates among both genders. In essence, simply appearing as though you either came from or are heading to the gym carries social capital today — regardless of any real commitment to personal fitness.

But wearing this modern uniform of health-consciousness doesn’t necessarily lead anyone to improved health literacy.

The trend goes beyond the superficial: medical decisions are informed more and more by political affiliation in place professional consultation. Note the growing anti-vaccination trend, whereby experts and doctors are subject to mob-minded scrutiny and suspicion. Trendy restaurants play on the whims of the market for specialized diets, whereby the menus reflect the increasingly picky standards of diners looking to stay on the cutting edge of supposed nutritional wisdom.

Catering to contrarians as an expression of America’s obsession with the individual has enabled, encouraged, and made endemic the idea that good health is subjective, rather than medically-grounded. Health literacy has been replaced by a pop culture dominated by pseudo-science, gimmicky seasonal trends, and politically-charged headlines. What hope does this leave for real health literacy to catch on?

Ever since Apple debuted the iPod as a fixture of fashion as well as function, technology has been making itself increasingly visible as a practical and esthetic trope. Hoodies and backpacks come equipped with headphone ports for easier cable management; sweat-resistant arm and head-bands are available in a full spectrum of colors, for easier coordination with spandex ensembles.

And now, with the rise of wearable tech, the toys of the 21st century are giving users an incentive to learn more about their behavior when it comes to personal health.

Integrating with the now-ubiquitous smartphones and their myriad apps, wearables equipped with features like GPS, a gyroscope, and a short-wave transmitter can track everything from how much time users are spending sitting around, to minute fluctuations in heart rate and blood pressure — models are available to track glucose levels for diabetes patients, and sleep patterns for insomniacs.

In short, these smart devices are putting big data in the hands of consumers, giving them an intimate biological profile. On its own, such information is meaningless; but coupled with rising awareness of why these numbers matter, what they ought to be, and what it takes to get them there, wearable tech has the potential to help make health literacy itself fashionable.

Instead of public service initiatives, from reforming the food guide pyramid to enticing kids to get more active, wearables present the notion that people will buy devices to appear cutting edge and hip, then learn the requisite basics to understand, share, and converse fluently about the many data they start outputting.

Digital disruptions to communication can now carry over to how people perceive and present their efforts to get fit. Wearing gym clothes just won’t cut it when social networks are ablaze with people’s weights, dietary habits, sleep schedules, and activity levels are recorded in precise detail and displayed in real time. A nominal commitment to personal health pales compared to a data-rich, hyper-social, tech-fueled approach to really understanding and influencing one’s physical wellness.

It is too soon to say that companies like Fitbit and other wearables-makers have struck gold with their products; unlike the vanity-feeding phones and tablets that capitalize on social media systems, fitness and health trackers broadcast real, consequential data: it is “Likes” and followers vs steps and calories. And with so many apps and interactivity already at their fingertips, consumers have yet to show whether they have a lingering appetite for more passive wearables that simply record and broadcast.

In an age of over-sharing, it may be hard to believe that people are still being selective about what they share on social media. Wearables stand to expose this gap between real and digital life. While the integrated social elements are intended to help motivate users to adhere to their diets and follow through on their workouts, setting people up to highlight their shortcomings is a much more tenuous proposition than the self-aggrandizing model of accumulating “friends” and becoming an influencer on matters of digital taste. Auto-sharing daily behaviors like miles traveled or meals eaten could threaten the balance of who we are, and who we appear to be online.

Still, using mobile devices to track real, meaningful behavior — as well as passively monitoring vital life signs and creating new, smarter baselines for individual health metrics, creates a lot of opportunities for people to learn, and take an active interest in, health literacy.

Hospitals and medical professionals, already primed to engage patients by the long-awaited digitization of healthcare records, will have a part to play in realizing the potential of wearables by incorporating them into care delivery. Just like advancing medical science does not automatically translate to improved outcomes, wearables do not equate to greater patient engagement. What they do provide is an added incentive for people to pay attention and improve their health literacy, built on the strength of existing social media platforms.

If hashtags, Tweets, and inconsequential “Likes” can all enter the modern lexicon, then hope may yet remain that the minutia of personal health also stand a chance at winning some recognition as worth following.

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