Silicon Valley is clamoring to enter the medical, wearable tech niche. Every tech company from Apple to Google is trying to solve our health crises with some kind of tracker, some simple, some sophisticated.
Sandy Pentland, PhD., of the MIT Media Lab has been tracking individuals by smart phones and other devices for years. He has gleaned a theory of “Social Physics” that can track and predict behavior and even foresee disease and illness. We had the chance to talk with him about his intriguing research and how physicians can apply it to their patients today.
~ Video Introductions by Ayesha Khalid, MD, MBA, Enterologist
Social Physics and Obesity: In the healthcare world, we have a hard time motivating our patients to follow the plans and pathways we create as doctors. If we can find the right incentives to get people to change their behavior and keep it that way- bingo! Huge win!
Pentland addresses this in a pilot health program. Participants received incentives whenever a person they partnered with worked out. This buddy system was eight times more effective per dollar than normal financial incentives. More importantly, they kept up the social network and exercise guidelines after the experiment concluded.
Social Physics and Genetics: The power of social physics and thinking about the spread of ideas can be very powerful in health care. Disease groups such as depression may be haphazardly grouped based on an accidental clustering of symptoms. Pentland discusses why therapeutics work so differently on individual diseases within a category. One recent project adds a behavioral and phenotypic component to genetics data and starts to tease out the different types of diabetes, or depression.
Social Physics and mental health: Imagine a world, where soldiers who have PTSD provide their psychiatrist with daily updates via their smart phones. Physicians don’t have to wait weeks for a check-up to see how medication is doing, but can simply check an app to look for tell-tale signs. Changes in behavior, both major and nuanced are tracked relaying a patient’s progression.
Social Physics vs Social Media: Recent media discussed the inaccuracy of “Google flu,” an online tracking algorithm that predicts the movement of the flu virus based on people searching for information. Pentland discusses the difference between aggregated data point from individual tracking vs keyword tracking through social media and search.
Human beings are highly social and communal in our sharing with one another, a trait signified by the importance of language and sociocultural imprinting. We know that Western healthcare does not pay attention to the power of social dynamics, our external environment, and the role it plays in our own wellbeing. Would it not be interesting if we could measure that in some way and help it to understand the power of the relationship of our genetic makeup with our disease manifestation?
Sandy Pentland has been a professor with the MIT Media Lab for nearly 30 years. He is also the co-founder of several companies including ginger.io and Thasos Group. He is the author of two books, Social Physics and Honest Signals.
Ayesha Khalid is a sinus surgeon with an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. Ayesha is interested in the re-design of the health care system with a patient-centered focus, specifically in the area of clinical trials and rare diseases. She is a co-organizer at Hacking Medicine, an interdisciplinary group at MIT that seeks to spark change in healthcare. She also serves as the Young Physician Chair for all ear, nose and throat physicians in the United States.