DIY Health 101: Becoming an Expert on Yourself

Let’s face it. Interacting with the formal health care system sucks. It’s slow, sterile, boring, and super confusing. No wonder we don’t like going to the doctor.

We all know it’s important to take care of ourselves (an apple a day, as the saying goes). If we were in a doctor’s office, this is the point in the conversation where we’d be told we need to exercise a little more, eat better food, and make sure we get plenty of water and rest. After a 1.5  hour wait for a six minute visit, this is also the point in the conversation where we’d wonder why the hell we even bothered to go in the first place.

What the pros never bother to tell us is that becoming a health expert is getting easier by the day, especially when the person we want to take care of is, well, ourselves. Subjective data and our individual context are extremely relevant in finding the most appropriate solutions. In becoming our own advocates, it’s possible to craft a completely customized and perfect experience in managing our health.

DIY health hackers can be found everywhere. From the innovative tinkerers and trackers like those at Quantified Self to the postpartum mom who just wants to get her body back, to the start-up employee who’s working 14 hours straight to meet a deadline, the saying has never been more true: nobody knows you better than you.

There are low cost, easy-to-use tools that provide data AND insight, and this is powerful.

As technology has caught up with our needs, our problem is not that we don’t have access to the right tools. There are apps and devices and gadgets at every turn, and they all promise to help us achieve our goals.  Our problem is that we don’t know which tools are right for us, and how to use them in a way that gives us greater insight without disrupting our already busy schedules.

We don’t need more access, we need curation.

The curator used to be a doctor. Your doctor was likely someone who practiced near you, knew your family and your family’s history and had a good understanding of your context. Nowadays, our local doctors have been gobbled up by hospitals and larger clinics, which presents an interesting opportunity: we can become our own curators.

With a bit of data and a few good insights, we can start to change our behaviors, make better (and more informed) decisions, reduce the amount of brain space we need to dedicate to becoming healthy, and use our doctors in more appropriate ways. It means we know whether or not it’s ok if our blood pressure is less than 120/80. It means we know whether or not our average body temperature is slightly higher than 98.6 degrees. It lets us create a normal baseline for ourselves, which empowers us to move beyond the accessibility of solutions and into the realm of choosing only those services which are most appropriate for us.

Of course, each person is different and that’s the point. No two people will have the same data sets, and no two people will have the same insights. Rather than worrying about trying to fit into textbook averages for our demographics, our time would be better spent building tool kit that makes it easy for us to figure out what’s normal for us.

Five apps that will have immediate empowering effects for anyone who uses them

Dr. Google can be fantastic for looking up infinite amounts of general information, but Dr. You will be much better at figuring out what is going to work and what isn’t. Here are some basic intro tools that we all should be using to get the most health care bang for our bucks.

Patient Information: Dropbox

  • If you don’t already have an account, sign up (they’re free up to 2GB). Dropbox is the perfect place for an individual to store and share their health records with whomever they need. To truly be in charge of your health, you need to own your data. Any health care provider that is unprepared or unwilling to share your records with you is either out of date, or not doing their job. (In either case, it’s a good sign that you might want to find another provider.)
  • When you own your own data you have the distinct advantage of being able to provide insight during times when the provider may find abnormalities. Dropbox allows you to have access to this data anywhere with an internet signal, regardless of that provider’s technological capabilities.

Medication Checker: Epocrates

  • Being your own advocate sometimes requires checking to make sure that none of your meds are interacting with each other negatively. Doctors are chronically overworked and don’t have time juggle every possible interaction or associated symptom. Luckily, you can do that for them (and you!). Epocrates allows you to search through any and all medications to see interesting facts like common side effects, contraindications, and common or serious interactions with other drugs. There’s a free version of the app so anyone with a smartphone should have this in their arsenal.

Vital Signs: Cardiio, Withings

  • There are plenty of devices to help keep track of vital signs but only a few that make it simple and seamless. Cardiio is an iPhone app that measures your heart rate and tracks readings over time. Knowing what your normal heart rate is when you’re at rest can be really helpful if you’re sitting in a doctor’s office and it all of a sudden jumps up a few beats per minute just from the anxiety of being there! For blood pressure, body weight and body composition, Withings makes the best commercial products. All of them sync with your smartphone so it’s really easy to keep on top of getting your measurements.

With just a few bucks and some good tools like the ones listed above, you can build yourself a solid baseline of data from which you can then pull really helpful insights about your health.

Building your own toolkit is the first big step toward owning your health. Once you can have an intelligent conversation with your doctor about what’s normal for you, it’s easy to start finding insights and creating personalized experiences that are much more rewarding than the average doctor’s office visit. The next piece of the puzzle is knowing what to look for once you’ve started to create a baseline. You’ll learn how to find insights, what to do with them, and why navigating the professional health scene can save you time, money, and mistakes when you own your own data.

This article is the first of a three-part series on health hacking by Dr. Sean O’Grady. Sean is the health director at www.syntropysf.com in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter.

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