Launched in 2007, and recently announced as an IPO, Fitbit has taken the health industry by storm. With the ability to track steps taken, heart rate, exercise, caloric intake, and sleep patterns, the various Fitbit wearable devices are popular among the active and sedentary. With an increase in chronic health conditions and an aging population, more physicians are looking to mobile technologies to gather important health data for monitoring their patients. Monitoring heart rate and physical activity among the elderly could prevent hospitalization, and a recent study by the Mayo Clinic showed that using wearable health monitoring devices could allow surgical patients to return home sooner.
A recent study of iPhone users determined that the use of personal health apps is increasing 87 percent faster than the rest of the mobile industry. The use of health apps in the first half of 2014 alone topped 50 percent of the entire mobile industry. The attractiveness of these apps stems from the consumer control of medical data and the changes this could bring to our traditional health care setting. Health monitoring and education can begin at home instead of in a doctor’s office, a plausible solution to our current physician shortage. Likewise, the use of these devices could increase compliance among patients who need to increase their physical activity or monitor their heart rates.
However, with these possible advances in mobile medicine come problems that have not yet been addressed. In 2011, Fitbit came under fire for its default sharing settings, which shared with friends all physical activity logged. Unaware that this information was public, users logged sexual activity and other possibly embarrassing activities. Likewise, with so much data readily available online, how that data is used must be regulated. Can a health insurance company use the data to determine which applicants should get treatment? Can a hospital’s donor registry use data to determine who would make better use of a heart? In order for daily tracking to be of any use in a clinical setting, patient rights must be protected.
In 2014, the Florida company CarePredict released its first trackers intended specifically for an elderly population. Not only does it track health activity but it also provides caretakers with lifesaving information, such as where their elderly relative is in their home. CarePredict justifies this tracking by reminding caretakers that a sleeping relative in the bedroom is normal, but one in the bathroom is not. A recent clinical research study described the use of Fitbits on recent amputees and predicted that wearable activity trackers could be a great assessment tool for prosthetics for new amputees. With so many uses for these personalized devices in a clinical setting, it isn’t too farfetched to imagine a day when a physician can review your Fitbit data before having your yearly visit to make your checkups more efficient.
Although numerous alterations remain needed before a Fitbit can be used in a clinical setting, this direction would be cost-effective and efficient. Patients are using more tools to monitor their own health and report to their physicians, and with daily tracking, wearable activity trackers could be a major step in the digital health field.
Myriam Bostwick is the Communications Director of a non-profit organization in New York City. She is currently pursuing a Masters of Public Health in Community Health Education and is most interested in the relationship between media, communications, and public health issues. She lives in Queens, NY, with her husband, Brian, and two pets, Lily and Charlie. Follow Myriam on Twitter at @myriambostwick.