Why Digital Health Apps Won’t Save Us

A Digital Health App Won’t Help You Get Fitter, Live Longer, and Sleep Better

Touted as the ultimate fitness app, the Fitbit is a marriage of digital health with wearable technology. The device and app sold by the millions. Turns out that Fitbit‘s heart rate tracking is dangerously inaccurate.  Fitbit is meant to help you track sleep, measure activity throughout the day, give you notifications to workout, etc.

This is an emerging trend. I closely follow Rock Health, a venture fund dedicated to digital health. Each week, its newsletter mentions funding deals in the digital health space. Massive amounts of capital are allocated to companies where technology trumps common sense.

The premise behind these companies is that digital technologies will help us fix our health. However, I would like to argue that this is not the case. If Peter Thiel were to ask me his contrarian question, “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?“, I would say that the premise behind most digital health companies is misguided. Technology will not help us save ourselves (at least in this case).

Why?

I’ve spent the last 3 years reading hundreds of medical journals in my spare time, and trying to make sense of how we can live longer, healthier, and fuller lives. I’ve spoken with hundreds of doctors, nutritionists, public health officials, and professors in related fields. I started writing in this space late last year, and got a lot more involved in this field by leading the Outreach team at NutritionFacts.org this year.

What has come up repeatedly is the importance of education, and people carefully curating their social, emotional, and mental lives to support their growth. Health is a game of changing the mindset of people, and apps are not designed to change mindsets. They’re designed to be addictive. Tracking sleep is pretty useless unless we address what’s keeping us up at night.

When a technology tool helps us reconnect to that old-fashioned sense of curating our lives, then we can change. Otherwise, a Fitbit used to make you fit makes as much sense as a Californian touting their environmentalism by driving an electric car, but using a dryer for their clothes instead of drying it in the sun: a useful illusion.

We tend to use shopping as a means of relieving the anxiety in our lives. For many of us, shopping in a traditional mall has replaced shopping technology products. And if they’re “personal development” oriented, hey, it’s a good thing, right? Sadly not.

Life changes begin with a change in mind-set. There is no gadget or app that will accomplish this for you. There is hard work involved. It means quitting mindless consumption of media designed to keep you complacent. It means taking charge.

Markets and consumers live on the hype and bust cycle (yes, I know it’s called boom-and-bust cycle you Keynesians!). And while technology companies in this space can be highly valued, I do not agree with their worth. They may have the market caps, the sales, etc. But does it change a person’s life, even incrementally? Would the fittest Fitbit users have achieved their level of health even without the device and app? I would argue yes.

I would bet that an infinitesimally small number of companies in the digital health space actually create products that matter. Ginger.io and Omada Health comes to mind. Most on the other hand, are focused on allowing technology to trump common sense. Many will undoubtedly sell well and make their investors a tidy return, but by tapping into the public’s need to consume away their anxiety for health, giving them an illusion of better control.

What’s the alternative? The alternative is to change what we consume (for our bodies and our minds). The return on that investment will be astronomically higher.

This is somewhat ironic for me to write, as a person deeply interested in figuring out how digital health can change the world. In my recent grad school application, I wrote about this in depth. It seems like I’m criticizing an industry which I wish to impact.

Not so. I was mistaken a few years back when I wrote this post. I too fell into the trap of pursuing value from the market’s perspective compared to value in terms of how lives can be affected. Since 2013, my viewpoint has changed substantially. Ideas of space exploration, and rubbing shoulders with billionaires and celebrities had a glamour attached to it, but was far too superficial.

Instead, this decision to work in digital health is much different. I’m in it for the long haul: a lifetime. I see my work as tackling the harder problem of changing mindset, perception, and motivation by using technology. I dare say this work may be less profitable than marketing a “magic” app, but I will be satisfied with the value I create.