Why we need a Wellness Informatics

April 25, 2021
By Vishal N. Patel, MD PhD

Why we need a Wellness Informatics

The lines between “wellness” and “medicine” are finally blurring, with lessons from the healing arts commingling with scientific breakthroughs. Tidbits and soundbites of information are scattered across Instagram and YouTube, and people the world over are increasingly self-diagnosing and self-treating. In fact, over the past 15 years, we have increasingly turned to Google to answer our questions about our health – to the point where our inquiries for acne have outpaced our inquiries on Shakespeare or physics:

Figure 1. Proportion of keyword searches over time; y-axis scaled by maximum value. Circa 2005, we “Googled” to look things up. Google and Wikipedia were quickly growing, becoming treasure troves for reference material that was once previously accessible only in books (here's an early timeline). Over time, however, Google evolved from being simply a reference tool to being the place where we could have our questions answered. As Google became more adept at answering questions like “how can I fix ___” or “what can I do for ____” or “what’s the best way to do ___”, we have increasingly turned to Google for help - including with our health.

While teenagers may have turned to Google in higher volumes for their acne, older generations, with our back pains and shoulder pains, have also exhibited a similar trend. The internet has responded with an explosion of answers for our questions. A Google search for “best acne treatment” today yields 278 million search results, and the front page highlights include 19 best cystic acne treatments, 15 best acne treatments of 2020, and 17 acne treatments that really work. When I was struggling with acne around 1999, I didn’t have access to side-by-side product reviews, let alone 10+ treatment options. I learned of treatments largely through my dermatologist, and I had to try each of those treatments sequentially. The options today are dizzying and readily available.

The Googling of health-related information falls outside of the purview of biomedicine, and physicians have even discouraged it (see this article or this advice). Without a doctor’s visit or an official diagnosis, you cannot be “counted” in any formal study of health-related search behaviors, but this is where the majority of us fall: many of us may not visit a physician, for we are not searching for a medical diagnosis. Rather, we are searching for wellness.

The Search for Wellness

Our health is not a destination: it is a journey. Our struggles and victories will be perennial, yet each new ache, each new ailment, takes us back to the same Google search bar: each time, we start with a blank slate (apart from our search history). The overarching question that we are asking is, “What is right for my (or my loved one’s) well-being?” From pain, to skin care, to sleep, to exercise, to diet, we are inquiring about it all, for it is all relevant to our wellness.

The race for content creation in wellness has resulted in fragmented and siloed information. Just as with the news, it is becoming increasingly difficult to evaluate the merit of a wellness claim. Connecting the dots – like understanding that treatment A works better when taken with treatment B, but that treatment B doesn’t work well for my body – is a laborious task. Much of our time and effort is spent on filtering out noise: removing products that contain ingredients we don’t like, sifting out content that isn't relevant to us, and ignoring the hype engines to find the information that is most meaningful to us.

Wellness information is voluminous, but we do not yet have a single dictionary – a taxonomy – that encompasses it in its entirety. Wellness information is convoluted, with many possible paths and options, but we do not yet have a comprehensive map of it. Wellness information is diverse, co-created by millions of seekers, healers, practitioners, and businesses around the world, and we need a way to harmonize this information so that we can all speak the same language.

What is Wellness Informatics?

Wellness is ripe for informatics, the science of information and the practice of information processing. Wellness informatics, as an independent pursuit, offers the hope of connecting disparate knowledge and enabling the creation of technology to help definitively answer our question: “What is right for my well-being?”

Informatics provides tools and methods to build data-driven software applications. More than just a database, informatics is the study of the content in your database, the patterns it contains, and the ways in which it connects to other data sources. Akin to its biomedical cousins, bioinformatics and clinical informatics, wellness informatics would provide tools to:

  1. Organize wellness information
  2. Standardize wellness information (i.e. map data into a common format)
  3. Harmonize wellness information (i.e. bring together diverse & disparate datasets)
By organizing, standardizing, and harmonizing wellness information, informatics would enable the creation of much needed technology in the wellness industry.

Some examples of applications include:

  • Prediction of future wellness trends
  • Algorithms to recommend dietary supplements based on demographics, symptoms, and biometric data
  • Ensuring the fidelity of wellness communication, i.e. how are teachings, principles, and programs being disseminated through social media and other distribution channels
  • Reduction in redundancy of marketing and product placements

As a more specific example, informatics would enable us to program a yoga app to recommend rotator cuff strengthening exercises if we experience neck pain while performing downward dog. These types of applications require us to bring together expertise across diverse domains (in this example, yoga, kinesiology, and anatomy), and informatics provides the means to do so at scale.

Ultimately, what makes wellness information complex is you: you intend to apply this information to yourself, and, in doing so, you introduce a number of new variables into the equation. These new variables require linking knowledge from disparate domains - from biomedicine and nutrition, to exercise physiology and alternative medicine. Today, there are a number of reputable wellness experts who are providing such recommendations online, but humans, invariably, have blind spots. Informatics is an objective approach to collecting, storing, and organizing the sum total of wellness knowledge so that we can obtain comprehensive and unbiased answers in our quest for wellness.