Making big data personal: An app that tracks how you really feel


The Qualia app displays your Q-score, the average of your physical, mental and social health scores.

The average person spends almost three hours each day on mobile devices like smartphones and the apps that come with them, market data shows. That’s equal to the total amount of time we spend on desktops and laptops and other mobile devices combined. After all that time that you invest in your phone, what if it cared about how you felt and scientifically evaluated your health? What if it could help you feel better?

There’s now an app for that being leveraged by everyone from pharmaceutical companies to University of Chicago researchers to Stanford University, thanks to David Beiser, MD, Associate Professor of Medicine.

“We divulge all sorts of secrets to our phone,” said Beiser, a University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine (ITM) investigator. “Why don’t we leverage that relationship for health?”

Beiser and his team developed a free app called Qualia Health that measures all the aspects of well-being that affect how we feel, but that can’t be measured with a simple blood test or an X-ray.

Like a Fitbit or a Jawbone, Qualia can measure how far you travelled and how fast you did it. You can tell Qualia how much you weigh and what you had for breakfast. But that’s just the beginning.

Qualia asks you questions about your mental health, your anxiety, your social connectedness and your satisfaction with your relationships. And Qualia is smart: It uses an adaptive algorithm to choose the next question from a huge database based on the answers you’ve already given. This allows Qualia to gather more information with five questions than an old-fashioned questionnaire can get in thirty.

In return for all this information, Qualia gives you a number called a Q-score, a scientific metric of health. Then Qualia does something else other health trackers can’t do – it tells you how your Q-score compares to everybody else, giving you an idea of where you fall on the happiness continuum of a healthy population.

“This app is great,” said one user in an iTunes review. “The tone of it is so loving and supportive. It makes you notice your own mental health weaknesses and vulnerabilities and so empowers you to make changes. I love it.”

Qualia may soon be able to give personalized suggestions to help make you healthier. Using the phone’s GPS and floor plans, it could find you a flight of stairs to take instead of the elevator. In a new town, it might find you a gym, or a healthier dinner option, or suggest it’s time to give your mom a call.

“Right now, our data is being leveraged by corporations to sell us things,” said Beiser. “It’s a step in the right direction to let our data be used to keep us healthy.”

An “oh crap” moment


David Beiser, MD

The idea for Qualia was born out of survival years ago after Beiser’s mentor unexpectedly left UChicago.

“I had my ‘oh crap’ moment,” Beiser said. “I was trying to do Big Science, and I had a tiny little lab and not that much funding.”

He realized that he had a skill set few others in his field had, and applied it to bolster his research and make it translational.

“I have this advantage: I know how to program,” said Beiser, who has graduate-level experience in computation and big data sets.

Going to conferences in that frame of mind, Beiser said he noticed an interesting trend.

“I saw this confluence of mobile computing, large data sets being made available, and health reform,” Beiser said. “Our phones are almost always with us, so I saw a huge opportunity to measure patients’ health in ways doctors can’t. We’re working to translate that data into personalized suggestions to patients on ways they can improve their health.”

One of the first Qualia clinical trial applications in collaboration with Kathleen Grady, MD, Professor of Cardiac Surgery at Northwestern University recently ended, where the team used Qualia to track the well-being of heart failure patients with a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD) implanted inside of them to keep their hearts beating.

LVADs are expensive, and there are mental and social costs as well that might be lessened if patients’ doctors or family knew that they were growing more anxious or felt socially isolated. In the study Qualia asked for daily check-ins and gleaned information about weight, activity level, sleep disturbances, fatigue, and pain. Beiser and his colleagues were interested in how well Qualia’s Q-score matched with patients’ own perceptions of their ups and downs. Anecdotally, the patients said that Qualia reflected their good days and their bad days, with one patient’s scores foreshadowing rising anxiety levels that eventually required medical intervention.

Beiser has submitted an R01 application with Grady, and future studies are in the works at Stanford (with LVAD patients), Northwestern, and UChicago (with Hypertension patients).

In the future Qualia may be able to send important daily reports to a patient’s health care provider, but Beiser said it will always hand the information back to the patient to allow them to better self-manage their conditions.

“The promise of Qualia is that we could follow your health and use that information to help understand what makes you feel better or worse,” Beiser said.

Got an iPhone? Download Qualia and try for yourself to see how your physical, social and mental state compares to the average American.

Originally published by the Institute for Translational Medicine.

About Renée de Pooter (2 Articles)
Renée de Pooter is a writer for the University of Chicago Institute for Translational Medicine.
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