AARP Purpose Prize
Lisa Gualtieri, PhD, ScM, became a 2018 AARP Purpose Prize fellow on December 5th, 2018. She shares her story below of how RecycleHealth came to be and also of what's to come. Click here to read AARP’s article on Dr. Gualtieri.
I founded and run RecycleHealth, a nonprofit that collects fitness trackers from individuals, organizations, and vendors, and provides them to underserved populations. Since 2015, we have collected more than 4,000 trackers, mostly Fitbits, and have donated them to different groups looking to improve people’s health and fitness.
The problem I’m trying to solve
Digital health technology is too expensive or too challenging to set up and use for many people who might benefit from devices to motivate them to be more active. I started RecycleHealth with the simple goal of collecting fitness trackers that people no longer use and providing them free to underserved populations who may not be able to afford them but may benefit from their use.
The moment that sparked my passion for this
Despite being a regular tracker user myself, going through various models over the years, the idea for RecycleHealth can be traced back to one moment. While preparing for a lecture at Tufts University School of Medicine, where I am on the faculty, I read that the heaviest purchasers of trackers are 18- to 34-year-olds, who are also the healthiest segment of our adult population. Furthermore, one-third of people abandon their trackers within six months. This sparked an idea: I wondered if I could collect the trackers people are no longer using and give them to those who can’t afford them but might benefit from their use. When I mentioned the idea to some of my students, their enthusiastic response gave me the impetus to start RecycleHealth. I set up a Facebook page to start, and later a website with the help of a former student, Sandra Rosenbluth, who is now our Communications Specialist. I found out quickly that my idea worked: many people were happy to send us their trackers for a good cause -- one that helps others while also reducing clutter and e-waste. Since our start, we have received trackers from every state in the U.S. and from countries all over the globe. We have also received donations from vendors, including Withings, FitBit, and Fossil. The fact that we have received more than 4,000 astonishes me, but I know there are many more sitting in junk drawers just waiting to be sent to RecycleHealth. The other side of my idea was to provide the trackers to underserved populations, and we have more groups requesting trackers than we can supply.
How my life has shaped this pursuit
I have a Ph.D. in computer science and teach at Tufts University School of Medicine in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine. I love teaching courses at the intersection of technology and health. Teaching is one of the best jobs imaginable: especially sharing ideas with my students, hearing their ideas, and determining the viability of new approaches. It’s incredibly satisfying to have had the idea for RecycleHealth and have this level of success on a shoestring budget, especially knowing how much my students have helped, and have learned.
Why my approach is unique
Nobody else is doing this. We are taking the fitness trackers people no longer use and getting them to people who wouldn’t otherwise know about them or be able to afford them. We have provided trackers to lower income older adults, homeless populations, adults with developmental disabilities, and veterans with PTSD. It is gratifying to hear the stories of those we are helping; recently I walked into a senior center and a recipient of one of our trackers gave me a hug and showed me that she had 1,000 steps and it was only 9 a.m.
While we’re called RecycleHealth, we are actually focused on the idea of reusing, refurbishing, and redistributing. We clean and test the trackers people send us. For the trackers that are broken beyond repair, we take them apart, recycle the components properly so they don't end up in a landfill and make earrings out of the circuit boards. My mother-in-law wears a pair and gets many compliments!
What’s next for RecycleHealth
We’re exploring exciting new areas. One I am particularly passionate about is learning more about the impact of poor digital literacy skills on older adults' adoption and use of digital health. This interest arose from working with older adults in senior centers to help them overcome the challenge of setting up trackers and apps. Another idea we're exploring is in developing displays of tracker data that physicians can use to provide patients with more tailored counseling about physical activity. A physician colleague of mine and RecycleHealth's Wellness Leader, Dr. Jeff Phillips, has lent his expertise and passion to this idea and others.
Advice to those who want to make a difference
If you have an idea for how to help people, jump in and try it out. Focus on successes and the fun moments. Our successes have been the sheer number of trackers we have received, and the number of people we have helped. The fun moments are the hugs from tracker recipients, and the notes people send with their trackers, thanking us for giving their tracker a second life. Another fun moment was when a popular theme park reached out to us. Every morning, under the rollercoasters and rides, the staff would collect FitBits that fell out of people’s pockets or off their wrists. Now, we regularly get shipments from the theme park! Never could I have imagined that as a source of our trackers, but it's these sorts of surprises that make me love what I do with RecycleHealth.