Photographer:Fotograaf: Loraine Bodewes/ Tamar Sharon in the middle
Edmond Hustinx prize for dr. Tamar Sharon
MAASTRICHT. How many calories did you eat this morning? And how many steps have you taken since breakfast? No doubt some people will be able to get out their mobile phone, click on an app and find the exact answer to these questions. Personalised healthcare technology like this is what philosopher Tamar Sharon’s research is about. She was awarded the Edmond Hustinx Prize for Science during the Opening of the Academic Year last Monday.
She knows almost everything there is to know about the latest apps, wearable devices and gadgets to monitor your health, but not because she’s a fanatic user. On the contrary. Only infrequently does Tamar Sharon, assistant professor at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, check the pedometer on her mobile phone.
Monitoring your health is not new: think of the old bathroom scales we step on every week or month. Now, in an era in which the app industry has exploded, it’s estimated that some 500 million people use some form of health app, Sharon says. “Self-tracking technologies are often fun, accurate and easy to use.” On her iPhone she shows an app called Healthkit, which can register more than 70 types of health data. Calories, body mass index, sleep cycle: everything can be saved. “In the United States some hospitals already work with Healthkit to better monitor their patients. I can imagine that there are benefits for doctors, including for general practitioners. You’d rather have a diabetes patient who keeps a clear diary on their mobile phone than one who comes in with some scribbles on a piece of paper.”
But we have to think further, says Sharon. She recalls a story she heard about a diabetic who checked his blood sugar regularly on a wearable device. One day he turned very pale and his wife was convinced he needed insulin. But his gadget kept telling him everything was fine. "What do we trust more? Our physical experience or the app?”
In her current research Sharon is interested in how people experience personalised healthcare technology in their daily lives, and how it affects their broader understanding of responsibility and autonomy. Her research is in 2014 funded by a €250,000 Veni grant (a subsidy for young researchers from the Dutch agency NWO) for a period of three years.
Sharon intends to use the €15,000 Hustinx prize to make an overview of what’s happening with the huge amount of data that health apps generate. “Medical professionals are very enthusiastic about these data. Instead of studying tens or hundreds of people, they can study thousands, thanks to partnerships with companies like Google and Apple. In spring Apple launched its ResearchKit, which allows mobile phone users to send their personal health data to medical researchers. The biggest American medical institutes are already participating.”
But there’s a but. “What are the ethical implications of this ‘googlisation’ of medical research? Who’s in charge of the data? The company that made the app, stores and analyses it? And what about the validity of the data? They’re entered by an individual, not a clinician. What if you lend your mobile phone to your brother for one day, and he saves his heart rate, by accident or for a joke? What’s more, Apple says the data are anonymous, but we know that anonymisation is becoming virtually impossible.”
Most crucially, Sharon questions whether a public good like health and medical research should be left in the hands of a few big companies that have nothing to do with medicine. “Companies like Google already claim to be the experts, that they know best how to run these new forms of clinical trials. Maybe it sounds pessimistic, but will they soon also be formulating our research questions?”
The Edmond Hustinx prize (worth €15,000) is awarded by Maastricht University on behalf of the Edmond Hustinx Foundation
Who is Tamar Sharon?
Tamar Sharon (1975) was born in the United States and moved to France (her mother is French) when she was ten years old. After high school she travelled through Israel, her father’s country of birth. She obtained her BA in Paris, her MA in Israel and did her PhD research on biotechnology and science at Bar Ilan University (near Tel Aviv) for which she received the Mara Bellar Prize from the Israeli Society for the History and Philosophy of Science for the best dissertation of 2011. For the period of her PhD research she earned a living with her work as an editor for a cultural magazine.
Four years ago she moved to Maastricht, bringing her one-year-old son, to take up a post doc position at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences under professor of philosophy Tsjalling Swierstra.
As a post doc in Maastricht, Sharon received a Rubicon grant from the NWO, the Dutch research funding agency, for her proposal on healthy citizenship. She was awarded a Veni grant in 2014.
She has also been nominated for a new prize: the New Scientist Wetenschapstalent 2015 (neurosurgeon Yasin Temel is the other nominee from Maastricht University).
You can vote until 7 September via www.newscientist.nl/talent