How cloud computing is reshaping personal health

Simon Bisson Advice
6 Feb, 2012

We all want to stay healthy and cloud computing is playing a big part in the drive towards better health

There's been a lot of talk about access to digital health records, and about sharing health information between different providers. But there's a big hole in the current model, as our centralised health records are only snapshots of when we visited health practitioners.

With IT giants struggling to deliver interoperable data models and secure hosting facilities, it’s not surprising that the first truly portable health cloud is coming from a completely different direction: personal health tracking devices.

Familiar cloud technologies power personal health systems, from the use of Amazon Web Services by start-ups to the growing number of information sharing APIs and a new generation of cloud services intended to help aggregate and analyse health data from devices and services.

Intel's director of Healthcare Innovation, Eric Dishman, has long argued that healthcare is much like the mainframe: big, unwieldy, and limited by batch processing. Instead, he suggests, it needs to be more like the PC, where it's small, highly networked and widely distributed, giving us a constant picture of our health, not just at regular (or as is more the case, irregular) doctors' appointments.

That's where personal health devices come in, giving us the tools we need for capturing the data we want, with sensitive pedometers on our belts, brainwave sensors capturing our sleep patterns, heart rate monitors in watches, with digital scales measuring not just weight, but calculating our BMI, and with services sequencing and exploring our DNA. But health is more than just data, and we also need tools to help us analyse and explore that data – and that's where the cloud has its biggest role to play.

A year ago personal health devices were for outliers and early adopters, but at CES 2012 they were everywhere. Even though they're adding more and more sensors, they remain single purpose devices.

Fitbit is at heart a pedometer, Withings a scale. Separately they tell us interesting things about our bodies and our metabolisms, but together they can give us detailed information about how exercise affects our bodies – trends and patterns that can help tune a lifestyle tailored to your chosen level of fitness.

The first personal health devices just kept your data in one place, with tools for sharing data via email with your doctor. But with devices coming from different manufacturers and with their data stored in different places, we need to be able to bring that data into one place in order to get the most from them.

That one place is the cloud. The evolution of the personal health cloud has been rapid, building on the APIs and services that device manufacturers are using. Instead of storing data locally, devices like the Fitbit Ultra use PCs as gateways to the cloud, uploading and storing data on the manufacturers own web sites. Services built around that data give you health analytics, letting you add extra information (for example, around eating patterns) to gain deeper insights. Mobile and web apps for end users meant that services had to have APIs, and these have become the basis for collaboration and data sharing. Your Fitbit service can bring in data from your Withings scale, giving you more data points and deeper insights.

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