digital phenotype

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The little digital breadcrumbs you blithely leave in your wake — the tweets, the online searches, and communities you join, the wearables that account for every step and bite — are beginning to coalesce into what could ultimately become a critically important portrait of your true physical and mental state.

At least that’s what John Brownstein of Children’s Hospital Boston and his colleagues argue as they analyze and collect these “breadcrumbs” amassing a wide spectrum of data to support a broad new concept of personal and public health that they call the “digital phenotype.” It’s like a contemporary extension of the more traditional phenotype — one’s observable characteristics based on a mix of genetics and the environment.

(Medisoft via Compfight/Flickr)

(Medisoft via Compfight/Flickr)

In a sort of digital phenotype manifesto published earlier this year in the journal Nature Biotechnology, Brownstein, an epidemiologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School and chief innovation officer of Children’s Informatics program, and others, explain the idea like this:

…there is a growing body of health-related data that can shape our assessment of human illness. Such data have substantial value above and beyond the physical exam, laboratory values and clinical imaging data — our traditional approaches to characterizing a disease phenotype. When gathered and analyzed appropriately, these data have the potential to fundamentally alter our notion of the manifestations of disease by providing a more comprehensive and nuanced view of the experience of illness. Through the lens of the digital phenotype, an individual’s interaction with digital technologies affects the full spectrum of human disease from diagnosis, to treatment, to chronic disease management.

Or, put another way: the digital phenotype adds a unique, more fine-grained look at the way people actually live each day.

Here’s one real-world example: Michael Docktor, a gastroenterologist and director of clinical innovation at Children’s Hospital Boston, treats many patients with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and one thing he usually requests is a detailed food diary. “Sometimes teenagers dump a 50-page food diary on me, and it’s hard for me as a human being to comb through that and, perhaps, find that milk, for instance, is a problem.” But, he says, “if we had that information digitally, tracked by software that used algorithms and machine learning to figure out the meaningful correlations and serve it up in an easily digestible format — that could be transformative.” Continue reading