Why the EU's health data plans could be bad news for the quantified self

If you track your health and lifestyle, you need to get interested in regulation stat
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Europeans might not be as crazy about wearables as Americans but millions of us are buying health and fitness trackers this year. The problem is that, by 2018, a new personal health law could restrict the use of data collected by non-medical health, wellbeing and fitness tech.

In other words, the biggest growing sector of the wearable tech industry has a lot riding on the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The new law could mean that health data from wearables is treated the same as sensitive medical records, and is due to be discussed in the European Parliament in 2016.

With an overburdened NHS in the UK, both tech companies and senior figures such as Sir Bruce Keogh have pointed to positive indications that Brits are happily to remotely monitor their own health. It saves doctors' time as well as saving public money with the potential for virtual consultations too. In September, KPMG asked 1,000 British adults if they would share data from a health monitoring wearable with their GP and 74% said they would. This dropped to just 8% of people who would share the data with a private healthcare firm.

Read this: 74% of British people would share wearable data with their GP

Now, Osborne Clarke, a UK tech and innovation law firm whose claim to fame is working with Isambard Kingdom Brunel, is sounding the alarm around the implications of the GDPR. It is asking the EU to rethink the plans, saying that proposals to categorise health data coming from your Fitbit or Apple Watch (heart rate, activity levels, sleep tracking) within the same regulations as medical records is too restrictive and will stifle innovation in health tech.

The future of health tech in Europe

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"Smart use of health data is way more than just mapping heart rates and running distances, it can save lives if allowed to be used correctly," said John Fell, partner at Osborne Clarke, which works with Facebook and Airbnb. "Unfortunately, the forthcoming legislation has the potential to nullify the potential of such technology by being overly restrictive.

"A discussion is already taking place amongst manufacturers around self-regulation. However, governmental bodies need to come to the table to add the most important ingredients here, trust and clarity."

The concept of updating European data protection laws itself isn't dangerous to wearable tech and mobile health companies. But with the risks involved in people's health data getting into the wrong hands and being misused, the European Commission could act too cautiously. The proposals include devices that are used even when a person is healthy and, while a pedometer wouldn't be classed as a health data device, a tracker that combined step counts with BMI and mood data, for instance, would be.

The NHS is already planning to introduce wearables, such as skin sensors for diabetics, into its services. The question now is whether tech firms can build health and wellbeing tracking devices, market them with 'claims' to improve your lifestyle or health and then be left to deal with the data as they see fit.

A compromise by the EU could be made up of practical measures which focus on making data anonymous or using pseudonyms together with user consent and control with simple - not ridiculously lengthy - terms and conditions and privacy policies. That would be a win for users, doctors and the tech world.

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Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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