January 28, 2013

Tracking for Health

7 in 10 U.S. adults track a health indicator like weight, diet, exercise routine, or symptom

Technology plays a modest supporting role, despite the proliferation of mobile devices and apps

WASHINGTON (January 28, 2013) – Seven in ten (69%) U.S. adults track a health indicator for themselves or a loved one and many say this activity has changed their overall approach to health, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project. In all:

  • 60% of U.S. adults say they track their weight, diet, or exercise routine.
  • 33% of U.S. adults track health indicators or symptoms, like blood pressure, blood sugar, headaches, or sleep patterns.
  • 12% of U.S. adults track health indicators or symptoms for a loved one.

However, their tracking is often informal:

  • 49% of trackers say they keep track of progress “in their heads.”
  • 34% say they track the data on paper, like in a notebook or journal.
  • 21% say they use some form of technology to track their health data, such as a spreadsheet, website, app, or device.

This question allowed multiple responses, but in sum: 50% of trackers record their notes in some organized way, such as on paper or using technology, and 44% of trackers do so only in their heads.

This is the first national survey measuring health data tracking, which has been shown in clinical studies to be a tool for improving outcomes, particularly among people trying to lose weight or manage a chronic condition. The Pew Internet survey finds that:

  • 46% of trackers say that this activity has changed their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone for whom they provide care.
  • 40% of trackers say it has led them to ask a doctor new questions or to get a second opinion from another doctor.
  • 34% of trackers say it has affected a decision about how to treat an illness or condition. 

“If tracking is the boon that clinical research has shown it to be, we now have a benchmark against which to measure future progress,” says Susannah Fox, an associate director of the Project and lead author of the report. “The explosion of mobile devices means that more Americans have an opportunity to start tracking health data in an organized way. But will they be enticed to adopt new habits? And will they integrate that data into their conversations with clinicians?”

The Pew Internet survey shows that people living with one or more chronic conditions are no more likely than other U.S. adults to track their weight, diet, or exercise routine. They are, however, significantly more likely to track other health indicators or symptoms and this likelihood increases among those living with more than one condition:

  • 19% of U.S. adults reporting no chronic conditions say they track health indicators or symptoms
  • 40% of U.S. adults with 1 condition are trackers
  • 62% of U.S. adults with 2+ conditions are trackers

Trackers living with multiple chronic conditions are more likely than others to use paper and pencil or some form of technology to collect their own health data. They are also more likely than other trackers to update their records regularly and to share their notes with someone else, most often a clinician. Those living with 2+ conditions are particularly likely to say that tracking has had a positive impact on their health – fully 76% agree with at least one of the impact statements, compared with 55% of trackers who report no chronic conditions.

Caregivers and trackers who had experienced a recent, significant health change are also more likely than other groups to report an impact. Trackers who keep formal records, such as on paper or using technology, are also more likely than others to report an impact.

A selection of studies and resources related to tracking and health:

  1. “Integrating Technology Into Standard Weight Loss Treatment: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” by B. Spring, et al. JAMA Internal Medicine 2012;():1-7. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.1221.
  2. http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1485082
  3. “Premonitory symptoms in migraine: An electronic diary study,” by N.J. Giffin, et al. Neurology March 25, 2003 vol. 60 no. 6 935-940.
  4. http://www.neurology.org/content/60/6/935.abstract
  5. “Type 1 diabetes: Treatments and drugs,” Mayo Clinic.
  6. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/type-1-diabetes/DS00329/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs
  7. “High blood pressure (hypertension): Treatments and drugs,” Mayo Clinic.
  8. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-blood-pressure/DS00100/DSECTION=treatments-and-drugs
  9. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends tracking in their Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans:

http://www.health.gov/paguidelines/adultguide/part4.aspx

About this study

The results reported in “Tracking for Health” come from a nationwide survey of 3,014 adults living in the United States. Telephone interviews were conducted by landline (1,808) and cell phone (1,206, including 624 without a landline phone). The survey was conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Interviews were done in English and Spanish by Princeton Data Source from August 7 to September 6, 2012. Statistical results are weighted to correct known demographic discrepancies. The margin of sampling error for the complete set of weighted data is ±2.4 percentage points.

The Pew Internet & American Life Project is an initiative of the Pew Research Center, a nonprofit “fact tank” that provides information on the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. The Project is nonpartisan and takes no position on policy issues. Support for the Project is provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Support for this study was provided by the California HealthCare Foundation, an independent philanthropy committed to improving the way health care is delivered and financed in California.

Media contact

Susannah Fox: sfox@pewinternet.org and 202-419-4511