Mental Health Issues May Be Detected Earlier As More Data Shared

With smart watches and fitness trackers exploding in popularity, IBM and Apple have teamed up to find ways to use the resulting flood of health-related data. According to the BBC, the companies could share data with doctors or insurers who could use it to catch problems early or monitor the success of wellness programs.

With many mental disorders closely linked to physical symptoms, this data sharing may potentially catch mental problems like depression that have tell-tale signs like sleep disturbance and chronic pain. For example, many fitness trackers monitor sleep data, so patterns with too much or too little downtime could raise a red flag. A major downturn in activity for a formerly active person could indicate withdrawal due to depression or because of the chronic aches and pains associated with a variety of mental disorders. An elevated heart rate even when a person is not exercising could be a tip-off to chronic stress. A person with extremely skewed calorie consumption might indicate an eating disorder such as anorexia.

The Treatment Advocacy Center says that 3.9 million with severe mental problems go untreated every year; that number doesn’t include those with milder issues. People are often reluctant to bring up issues like anxiety or depression because of the stigma, but wearable devices give objective data that health care providers can use to start a conversation.

Privacy concerns are one potential stumbling block for this data sharing. The BBC reports that Jawbone, which makes a popular fitness tracking device, is talking to companies about how its wearable technology could be used to monitor employees. That raises the question of informed consent for any kind of data sharing, whether it’s with an employer, health care provider, or anyone else.

These issues are still being worked out, but the potential benefits are big. Whether it means catching physical illnesses early or flagging possible mental problems, wearable trackers may soon be an important first line tool in identifying problems.