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Data could save your life, in a heartbeat


Recently, I read that Formula 1 announced it is planning to take biometric data from drivers, like heart rate, and include this in the “dashboard” of information available to broadcasters, so audiences can see how physically demanding the races are, and how incredibly fit the drivers are; this might be available as early as the 2018 season.  This type of athlete data is already used widely across sports to help improve individual performance – think cycling, rugby, football, rowing.  Although I believe none has plans to broadcast this information in the same way, it does bring a level of immediacy and understanding of the physicality that sportspeople are achieving, and I can see this could be a highly attractive data set to make available to consumers and sponsors.

This reminded me of a story I heard many years ago about a very famous British actor (whose identity I have not disclosed, for reasons that will become apparent).

He was asked to do an advert for a new show on the BBC in which he was starring.  This involved him doing a PTC (Piece to Camera) in extreme close-up, so all you could see was his face on the screen as he spoke his lines.

As is usual, the piece was shot months in advance of the broadcast, and it was filmed without incident.  The actor thought nothing further about it, unaware that this one ad would save his life.

The Miracle, at Primetime

However, the day after the broadcast of the advert, he received an unexpected message, passed on by the BBC – “Go immediately to your doctor today; do not delay until tomorrow”.

This had been sent from a viewer of the advert.  Perturbed by the urgency and seeming randomness of the missive, he did as he was bidden by the unknown individual.  He explained the story of the emergency request to his doctor, who took one look at him, diagnosed hyperlipidemia immediately, and prescribed him anti-cholesterol drugs and ordered him to change his diet and exercise regime.  Indeed, his cholesterol level was through the roof.  The doctor concluded “You are a very lucky man – by rights, you should have been dead six months ago!”

He subsequently discovered that the viewer was a leading heart surgeon in London.  What the two medics had noticed was fat deposits that had built up within the actor’s brown eyes, which had been so severe that they had formed a white circle or halo within the iris.  These white patches in the iris can be indicative of very high levels of cholesterol, especially if they manage to join to form a complete circle; this is therefore a common “early warning signal” for doctors when patients present with high cholesterol symptoms.  This is what the watching heart surgeon had spotted, and had therefore got in touch with the broadcaster.  It seems certain that without his phone call to the BBC, the actor would not have changed his lifestyle, and would have suffered a heart attack (he is, by the way, still very much alive and working today).

There are many other “What ifs” in this story – what if the heart surgeon had been out, or making a cup of tea, when the ad was broadcast; what if the director had not chosen to shoot in extreme close-up.  Whilst this story predates the technological advances we are talking about above, it does offer an interesting parallel; what the fitness apps or technology are doing are taking performance or biometric data and surfacing them in a way that they can be viewed, and this can be interesting and add to the experience.  For instance, I view my cycling performance data all the time on Strava, but in truth, I am looking to see how many calories I have burned, and whether I have done any personal bests.  I am not medically trained, so I am not looking for warning signs.

Making the miraculous, ordinary

What I, and therefore most of the audience for any of these apps, can’t do is interpret the data for any of these anomalies; it still takes specialist knowledge to understand what the data is saying.  And this could matter if this performance data is to be broadcast.  Elite athletes put their bodies through a lot of physical strain, and are often operating at the very limits of capability; Formula 1 drivers in particular go through several “G”s round every corner.  Indeed, accidents, including fatal ones, are sadly not uncommon in the sport.  Whilst part of the fascination with sports is the gladiatorial nature of how competitors push each other during the contest, I doubt the audience would want to see the biometric data of drivers involved in a particularly nasty crash.

The development does raise interesting questions about ownership and privacy; the heart rate data has to be, almost by definition, the property of the individual, and so this takes personal “image” rights to a new level.  Perhaps more significantly, digital biometric information is defined as “sensitive” personal data, so it is governed by even greater levels of privacy scrutiny than usual - in the same way that you would expect the information shared with your doctor to be sensitive.  This is why I have not named the actor above.

As a result, sharing this information is likely to be legally challenging, although I’m sure that from an athlete’s point of view, financial compensation would help waive some of the privacy issues.  However, these will still exist for any app that looks to do something similar for the general public.

But from a sporting point of view, the F1 plans with heart rate data implies that this type of personal physical data is so commonly used within F1 (and within elite sport more generally) that it’s no longer a competitive advantage to keep secret within the team.  Everyone is already using this to look after their drivers and athletes; it’s just standard practice.  Therefore, it’s okay to be publicly shared, and turned into a media asset.

And that’s why I think this development is so interesting.  Because there is clearly an opportunity for fitness and health apps, or at least the data taken from them, to be used to flag medical problems, like arrhythmia, which can then be treated or managed preventatively, rather than reactively, often in an emergency environment.  It’s relatively common now within healthcare for biometric data to be used from medical devices to aid rapid diagnosis for some patients (for instance, with “smart” pacemakers).  But that also suggests that this type of analysis could be extended beyond elite sport.

Whilst elite athletes will already be using such tools, there are obviously opportunities for these to apply to general users like me.  That would mean that the types of chance diagnoses that only 20 years ago were the preserve of famous actors lucky enough to be seen on television would now be open to anyone running round the park.  Think what that could do for preventative healthcare across the general population!