by Greg Freiherr

How digital avatars will inspire – or frighten – us to better health

Nov 23, 2015
Big DataElectronic Health RecordsHealthcare Industry

Armed with our medical information, digital clones may show us what we are now – and what we could be in the future .

In an ideal world, our medical information is accessible regardless of the doctor, clinic, or hospital, regardless of city, any state or even any country.  In reality, however, our health IT systems are a long way from ideal.

Just accessing a patient’s medical images can be difficult under the most forgiving circumstances.  Now consider what it’s like when the patient is in a car accident, while on vacation, in a big city, in a foreign country. 

Some people wear medical alert bracelets to notify medical personnel about life threatening illnesses that need to be considered in an emergency.  In the digital age, these have morphed into USBs loaded with digital information. One company, appropriately dubbed, Medical Avatar, uses personal data to create digital clones or “avatars.”

These avatars are sketched in with data about height and weight, as well as digital photographs.  They are then filled out with data imported from patients’ electronic health records and other information sources, including personal sensors such as home blood pressure monitors and fitness trackers. 

These avatars are part of a rendering of the future that may affect many walks of life.   Visionaries are now projecting the use of such digital alter egos in everything from job searches to personal shopping. Machine learning algorithms that build models of who we are and how we live are already being used by Google to figure out what we might want to click on; to pitch what we might want to buy;  and LinkedIn to suggest who in their database we might know.

The profiles underlying these educated guesses  come from the data we input to our PCs or smartphones.  Building an avatar from information about your health using a wide range of sources could be far more comprehensive – and could have an even greater impact.

Such a digital clone could be tied into a personalized health plan, providing guidance and tips on how to improve your health.  Want a healthier lifestyle, input your daily consumption of vegetables, meats, grains, carbs, fats, fruits – and alcohol – to track how well you are doing. Want to get fit?  Upload personal fitness data obtained using wearable sensors.

But don’t stop there. Record your sleep schedule. Track your medications. Input photos with changes in weight and height. Your avatar might even suggest certain changes in your lifestyle.  In a digital twist on the Dickens’ “Ghost of  Christmas Yet To Come”, it might “visualize possible future versions of yourself,” as the result of such changes, predicting how you might look and feel a year or five years from now.

How – or whether –digital projections can inspire – or frighten us – into making actual changes in our lives will depend on the individual.  The old joke is that people who need to lose weight will do anything, so long as they didn’t have to exercise or diet. 

That’s always been the problem with preventive medicine.  It takes effort. And most of that effort is not fun.

Digital clones raise the possibility that the data needed to identify problems and track progress toward their solution might be done more easily, while providing the positive motivation to take action.   Simulations that show the effects of a healthier lifestyle might inspire us to do better.  Just as a futuristic projection of what we will look like if we don’t make a change might frighten us.

 Just using such a cyber clone as a medical vault for personal data could be helpful . With the widespread adoption of electronic health records, just about everyone who has visited a doctor recently has a digital health profile.  Age, weight, height, past surgeries, mammograms, vaccinations, illnesses, imaging exams, prescribed drugs…you name it…are all in there.  And while future IT systems might one day be integrated to allow the easy transfer of data, we are right now a long way from such as system.

Your data are almost certainly scattered if you moved from one city to another; changed doctors; or visited a specialist.  If you’re a young adult, you may have pediatric records with one medical practice and records since you turned 18 with another.   If you are female, some of your records may be with an OB/GYN. Even if you have stayed with the same doctor, if your doctor left one healthcare system for another, your data probably didn’t go along. 

People today hire life coaches to mentor them and keep them on track with their goals.  Digital avatars could take their place, understanding us like no human possibly could. If that happens, these digital clones could become as big a part of our lives as smartphones.  And possibly indispensible to our health and livelihood.