Earlier this year we wrote about the quantified self, a growing trend where individuals track personal health data like heart rate, sleep, or steps per day. That article focused on the limits of personal data, especially for addressing chronic diseases, which represents the biggest challenge for national population health.

But Talithia Williams, a statistician and mathematics professor who thinks a lot about health data, has another interpretation of the quantified self. She believes that by taking ownership of personal health data we can all become experts about our bodies, allowing us to work with medical professionals towards better personal health outcomes.

In a popular TEDx talk delivered last year, Dr. Williams explains how numbers can tell a story, and how a quantified self approach improved her medical care. By tracking her own daily temperature over the course of a pregnancy, Williams made a more informed, data-based decision about whether to induce at almost fourty-two weeks. She challenged her doctor’s recommendation and ended up making a better choice for her personal health and the outcome her pregnancy.

In the talk, Williams also mentions her husband Donald, who’s misdiagnosis during an emergency room visit inspired him to use personal health data to change his diet and exercise regimen. She shows an inspiring photo of Donald holding an old pair of pants after he lost more than 100 pounds.

As Talithia Williams says, medical doctors are experts on population, but you can be the expert on yourself. If you take the initiative to know your own body, when the two of you come together you can make better decisions about your health.

I’m sure Dr. Williams is right. Anyone who takes the initiative to measure personal health data daily (whether heart rate or steps walked or minutes exercised) will be a better self-advocate who can effectively collaborate with their medical team. In this sense her talk is great, because she’s calling on people to take ownership of their data and feel empowered to make healthy lifestyle choices.

But even though the quantified self movement has made collecting personal data easier than ever before (your smartphone is a great pedometer), there’s still a question of accessibility. While Dr. Williams’ approach is inspiring, it assumes that we all have the time, technology, and know-how to collect and understand our own data, which may not be true for many Americans.

Talithia Williams’ approach to the quantified self is decidedly different than the conclusion reached by the co-founders of Sentrian, who’s interviews informed our June article on the topic. While they say making the quantified self relevant requires large-scale information gathering and population health management using data analytics, Williams says you can start right now.

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