Taking steps to learn more about obesity with smartphones

Photo by Petr Kratochvil

Many of my friends use smartphones to track their steps as they walk about town to grocery shop, grab lunch or just take a break from the computer. Their daily goal is typically 10,000 steps. Now researchers are using this type of data to study public health.

Stanford researchers used step data captured by smart phones to analyze the activity levels of over 700,000 men and women from 111 countries during a 3-month period. Although the data was anonymized, it included key health demographics such as age, gender, height and weight so the research team could calculate each person’s body mass index.

The investigator’s goal was to figure out why obesity is a bigger health problem in some countries than others. As outlined in a paper in Nature, they found that people walked a similar amount each day in countries with little obesity, whereas there was a big activity gap in countries with high levels of obesity — and they dubbed this phenomenon the “activity inequality.”

“If you think about some people in a country as ‘activity rich’ and others as ‘activity poor,’ the size of the gap between them is a strong indicator of obesity levels in that society,” said Scott Delp, PhD, a Stanford professor of bioengineering and of mechanical engineering, in a Stanford news release.

Delp and his colleagues also found a gap in activity levels between genders — men walked more than women — that varied from country to country. Overall, their research identified strong correlations between activity inequality, the gender-activity gap and obesity levels.

How did the United States rank? It was ranked near the bottom for activity inequality due to a large gap between the activity rich and activity poor. It also has a large gender-activity gap and high levels of obesity.

The researchers hope their results will inspire designers to make cities more walkable and pedestrian-friendly. “In cities that are more walkable everyone tends to take more daily steps, whether male or female, young or old, healthy weight or obese,” explained Jennifer Hicks, director of data science for Stanford’s Mobilize Center.

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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Commentary expresses “building resentment against the shackles” of electronic health records

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Photo by Daniel Sone

Current electronic health records, also known as EHRs, have many failings. That’s according to a commentary written by Stanford faculty members Donna Zulman, MD; Abraham Verghese, MD; and Nigam Shah, MBBS, PhD, that appears today in JAMA.

Zulman, assistant professor of medicine, elaborated in a recent email:

“Many physicians are frustrated with the dominant role of EHRs in today’s clinical practice, which is experienced physically in the exam room in the form of a computer that sits between the doctor and patient.

While EHRs facilitate certain tasks, such as medication orders and medical record review, they’ve shifted clinical care away from the profound interactions and relationships that motivate many physicians to pursue careers in medicine. Our objective in this essay was to describe the need for EHRs to evolve in a way that frees physicians to focus on the caring that only they, as humans, are equipped to provide.”

According to the commentary, specific failings of EHRs include: lengthy records that don’t prioritize meaningful information, the generation of too many non-urgent alerts that continually interrupt physician workflow and the absence of key information about patients’ environmental and behavioral stressors. EHRs are basically “designed for billing” rather than easy use by healthcare providers, they write.

Zulman added:

“Many record systems house data for large populations that could potentially inform treatment decisions for individual patients. By synthesizing information about other patients with similar demographic and clinical characteristics, EHRs could provide recommendations to help guide therapy decisions when traditional evidence is lacking. Expanding the types of information in EHRs to include social and behavioral determinants of health would greatly enrich the data available for these purposes, since we know that these factors are often fundamental to a patient’s treatment response and health outcomes.”

The authors also describe ways to improve how information is presented in EHRs, particularly when a patient has a complex medical history. For instance, they suggest capturing the key events of a prolonged illness in a single graph, so physicians and patients can easily visualize the clinical course of the disease and treatment. Overall, they argue that existing technology can be used to more effectively track, synthesize and visualize EHR information.

The authors concluded in their piece:

“There is building resentment against the shackles of the present EHR; every additional click inflicts a nick on physicians’ morale.

Current records miss opportunities to harness available data and predictive analytics to individualize treatment. Meanwhile, sophisticated advances in technology are going untapped. Better medical record systems are needed that are dissociated from billing, intuitive and helpful, and allow physicians to be fully present with their patients.”

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

Science at the Theater: Next Big Tech Idea

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You be the judge! Help pick the next big tech idea that will benefit society.

Five scientists will pitch their technology ideas at the next Science at the Theater, a free public lecture hosted by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It will be held on Monday, February 24 at 7 pm at the Berkeley Repertory Theater.

The audience and a panel of judges will listen to the scientists’ technology pitches, then vote on which one will help society the most. The topics  that will be discussed are:

  • “Making Better Batteries” by Guoying Chen, Chemist
  • “Tracking and Hacking Personal DNA Damage” by Sylvain Costes, Biohysicist
  • “Making Energy Measurement Stick ” by Steven Lanzisera, Applied Energy Scientist
  • “Molecular Velcro” by Gloria Olivier, Chemist
  • “Dress Code for Martians” by Alex Zetti, Physcist

Free reservations for the event are still available. But hurry, because these events usually fill up.