New York, NY – Always by your side. Holds your deepest secrets. Never judging. Knows as much about you as you do. While these could all describe a best friend or life partner, they also pretty much nail the relationship that many people have come to develop with their smartphones. Could the dynamics of this relationship be the key to conducting better, more accurate health research for certain types of conditions? For researchers from the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, the answer is a solid YES.

A recent New York Times Magazine article explores how Jasmine McDonald and Lauren Houghton, who study puberty patterns in adolescent girls and how they can correlate to disease later in life, are using the mobile app Clue to gather more accurate and detailed information than they have ever been able to achieve in the past. Traditional data-collection methods such as paper journals and calendars limited the ability to record information in “real time” and were a generational disconnect for their target audience. The researchers compared the tools to a homework assignment—done last minute and sloppily. Leveraging mobile technology in their work has not only allowed participants to record their experiences in the moment that they are happening, but also has given them more honest answers to questions about personal health. Some things (like menstrual cycles) can be embarrassing or uncomfortable to talk about to a physician about, but the idea of “talking” to an app is much less intimidating.

The app itself has ambitions of evolving into a more robust tool for care and monitoring. One of Clue’s founders shares a vision for the platform where it will be able to do it’s own studies, publish findings and tie them back into a user’s experience—possibly even alerting a user when menstrual irregularity could indicate a problem disorder.

Why this matters – The use of apps has the power to carve out brand new paths of research and even to revisit and challenge long-standing thinking on certain conditions that have primarily relied on patient/doctor face-to-face interactions to gather data. The article’s author, Jenna Wortham, states it beautifully:

It’s not just teenagers; most of us are willing to be much more honest with our phones than with professionals, or even with our spouses and partners. We look up weird symptoms and humiliating questions on Google with the same ease that we search for the name of a vaguely familiar character actor. For many of us, our smartphones have become extensions of our brains — we outsource essential cognitive functions, like memory, to them, which means they soak up much more information than we realize. When we hand over this information willingly, the effect is even greater.

About the Author:

Jeffrey Giermek