With these holiday gifts, health-conscious may need to add dose of skepticism

deskstanding-231x300Holiday gift-giving can be expensive, so the health-conscious may wish to exercise skepticism about some potential purchases with dubious or unexpected consequence.

If you’re considering forking over more than a few dollars, think twice about:

  • So-called “tall” or “standing” desks. They were supposed to be a response to growing research about workers’ heightened health risks from sitting all day long. But studies show that standing while working with a computer isn’t as beneficial as some advocates may have claimed. That’s because it isn’t exercise or movement — which was supposed to the point of promoting healthier workplace practices, such as getting up from the desk and walking around every few minutes rather than becoming sedentary on the job. Studies, in fact, show that workers who must stand all day suffer health harms, like varicose veins and more. Some employees with posture issues may benefit some from standing and not scrunching themselves up while sitting at a desk. For most of the rest of us, it does matter to get up, exercise, and move. A fancy desk isn’t necessary for that, right?
  • Over-the-counter, mail-in genetic tests. Skepticism about vendors like 23andMe should abound, as experts say the information the firm can provide from customers spitting in a test tube, at present, is limited, both in genealogy and health terms. It can create more anxiety than insight. And users may be giving up invaluable, highly private data on themselves with scant consumer protection and knowledge about future consequence. Such information, including ancestry correlation with disease, may be highly useful to insurers, crime solvers, and drug makers. But if authorities detain you or yours or you are denied health coverage, will Auntie Sally’s quest for purported ancestry information really have been worthwhile?
  • Fitness tracking devices, including through “smart” watches. Despite the diagnostic fandango that’s building around these consumer electronics, experts warn that users should temper their expectations. They can be helpful tools to motivate exercisers to set, monitor, and keep fitness goals. But, for now, users may wish to exercise care in thinking that over-the-counter devices can be used to diagnose or help care for a range of health concerns, including irregular heart beat or heart attacks. They may, instead, create concerning data that leads to over-testing and over-treatment — an already significant nightmare that adds to medical costs.

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services but also their struggles to access and afford safe, efficient, and excellent medical care. Americans already spend more than their peers in western, industrialized nations on health care costs, with lesser benefits. When we’re forking out on average $9,400 per capita on such expenses, why add more for trendy but dubious devices or treatments?

We all need to look, too, with growing caution and concern about medical devices and their associated treatments. We should worry not only whether they are dangerous and defective but also just how invasive they may be, especially how intrusive they are becoming about our highly personal and confidential medical information.

ProPublica, the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative site, has posted with NPR a piece worth reading about doctors, insurers, and providers of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines for treatment of sleep apnea, a disorder that may affect as many as 22 million Americans.

The news organizations’ investigations have found that CPAP devices have gotten not only “smart,” but maybe as they say, by half, too: They’re quietly providing data, especially to doctors and insurers, to deny the devices to patients or to question and cut coverage for costs associated with their use. To be blunt: The devices spy on their users and squeal on them — not necessarily for patients’ benefits but for a host of others. That’s not good. It should offer a warning to us all about health and medical devices, necessary or fun. This isn’t Santa, after all, deciding who might be “naughty or nice.”

Illustration credit: ©Creative Commons. Angus McIntyre and Mattthew.

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