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How tech can make health science accessible to everyone

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Throughout my medical career I’ve treated patients in vastly different settings—from Zambia, where I went to medical school, to the U.S., where I still practice medicine today. All of these places shared a troubling trend: While we successfully treated people for conditions like malaria or heart failure, they continued to get readmitted for recurrences of these conditions. It became clear to me that even though the medical community has a tremendous amount of knowledge about what it takes to improve health and save lives, we struggle to share that knowledge with everyone. 

Decades later, we’ve made some progress, but there’s more to be done. In the nearly 20 years since I left Zambia, prevention efforts have cut the incidence of malaria in half. At Johns Hopkins Bayview, a hospital in East Baltimore where I started as a resident physician and later on became the Director of Heart Failure, I helped lead efforts that eventually reduced the heart failure readmission rates by one third. These successes did not require the creation of a new drug or device, they simply relied on translating the existing science we had into something that people can put into action. 

Today, as the medical lead for Google Fit, an app that helps coach people to live a more active and healthy life, this idea still drives me. If we can better share existing scientific knowledge with everyone, then we can help people live longer and healthier lives no matter where they are. 

There’s general agreement in the medical community that physical activity improves health. In fact, some studies show that people who meet the physical activity guidelines have 40 percent lower rates of diabetes, 35 percent lower rates of heart disease, 20 percent lower rates of dementia and depression and 20 percent lower rates of cancer. And that’s not all: There are even more short-term benefits linked to physical activity, like lowered stress and improved sleep. But despite all the medical research, people are more sedentary than ever. 

The Google Fit team realized the need to convert the highly technical scientific guidelines for physical activity into actionable information that people can understand and incorporate into their lives. The scientific report from the World Health Organization (WHO) and American Heart Association (AHA) that underpins their physical activity guidelines is 700 pages long! So to start, we worked with the WHO and AHA to get the guidelines accurate from a technical perspective. 

Then our designers turned the information into something that was easier to understand, no matter who was looking at it. After all, it’s tough for most people to know the difference between moderate and vigorous activity, or take into account every little bit of your activity throughout the day. To cut through the noise, we created a unique metric for the Google Fit app called Heart Points. This metric helps people incorporate physical activity into their lives so they can reach the recommended levels. The most surprising thing is how simple changes, like picking up your pace while walking on your commute, can have a huge impact. It’s not always about putting on workout clothes or investing money in a gym membership. You can use the Google Fit app on any Android or iOS phone, or any Wear OS by Google smartwatch.

Google certainly isn’t the only company working to use technology to improve wellbeing, and physical activity isn’t the only way to achieve a healthier lifestyle. In fact, we’re at an exciting time when advances in technology can bring new opportunities to promote healthier habits. The next challenge will be to come together across industries and companies to bring science-backed information to people in ways that can affect their day-to-day actions and, ultimately, improve their health. 

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