As mobile health technologies like Fitbits and Apple Health become more common, better health seems inevitable. But much of the data that users can now track never actually reaches their doctors.
That’s one of the problems University of Missouri psychiatrist Dr. Ganesh Gopalakrishna faced while treating his patients with various mental illnesses. While some of his patients were logging their activity, both mental and physical, he couldn’t get a good record of it.
"If you think about it, there's a lot of data out there about activity levels, and sleep from these fitness tracking devices, and it's very useful for health care providers,” Gopalakrishna says, “but we hardly ever see that data at all because it's not accessible in the workflow of physicians.”
So about two years ago, he began developing a mobile app called MoodTrek. The app combines two parts: mood tracking, which helps users understand patterns in mood and mental illness; and fitness tracking, which helps users understand how their fitness levels affect their mood. Then it sends that information straight to the doctor.
To make this automatic send off possible, Gopalakrishna teamed with researchers from Missouri University of Science and Technology and the Tiger Institute for Health Innovation.
They partnered the app with the Kanas City-based Cerner Corporation, the health information system used by the University of Missouri. That's how information from the app can go directly to the doctors. It’s also why it is currently only being used by doctors who use Cerner systems.
But it couldn’t just be a method of transferring data. Gopalakrishna wanted more of his patients to get the benefits of tracking their own health as well.
Kody Inhat, a senior at MU, has been using the app since January to help her manage her depression.
Inhat manually inputs her mood by picking one of several smiley faces. These represent emotions like happy, sad and neutral. Then, she can journal about how she is feeling to give more insight into the emotion.
"Oh, I just did great on a test, I'll log that as a high note,” Inhat explains. “Or, crap, my dog just died, you know, log that.”
Inhat also has a Fitbit that she syncs to the app that tracks her steps, sleep and other health patterns. And all that information goes directly to her psychiatrist whenever her phone is connected to the Internet.
“When patients see that when they’re sleeping well or having good amount of activities, their mood gets better, they're likely to improve their lifestyle and help themselves,” Gopalakrishna says.
The information is useful for doctors as well, who can use it to help give their patients better treatment.
Dr. Gbolohan Oyinloye, a psychiatry fellow at the University of Missouri who also uses the app in-clinic, says that having access to this kind of information helps him prescribe medications more objectively.
"We tend to fall into that trap sometimes by increasing the dose of medications because someone has had a bad week,” Oyinloye says. “Or the opposite could be true, sometimes we could be trigger happy and reduce the dose of medications because someone had a good week.”
The app still only has limited users, with just a few hundred downloads for Android phones. But while the team works on expanding the technology to more doctors and patients, it's already helping current users like Kody Inhat. She says that just inputting her mood every day helps her cope with her depression.
"It forces you to evaluate how you're feeling on a day. And forces you to think, okay why am I doing okay, what's going well, what's doing bad."