From smart watches that count calories to underwear that tracks heart rate, devices that keep an eye one’s health are skyrocketing in popularity. In fact, at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) earlier this month, a clothing line that monitors heart health claimed the top prize in innovation for wellness products.
Naturally, the public is curious about the benefits and drawbacks of using this futuristic tech. Consider these talking points when patients ask you about wearables — especially the accuracy of these tools and potential risks to data privacy.
Wearable Technology Reaches the Underwear Drawer
Michael Chan, MD, interventional cardiologist at St. Joseph Heritage Medical Group, tells Florence Health that the era of wearable technology is already well underway, with fitness trackers, smartwatches, rings and glasses exploding on to the market.
At CES 2020, Myant showcased heart health management apparel, including underwear, that track the electrical activity of the heart. The clothing then transmits the data to an AI-enabled platform through an app. Myant’s app allows users to share data with caregivers and healthcare providers. It also has a notification system that alerts relevant parties of significant changes.
Patients who need to wear a tracker but often forget may prefer using something that they’re unlikely to leave at home, like underwear. What’s more, the product’s sensors are embedded in the bands so they’re not bulky, which might encourage patients to wear them more than less comfortable options.
Gathering Useful Data
The main question for healthcare providers relates to data: Can wearable technology give accurate readings?
“It’s possible the devices work, but future rigorous studies will be necessary to determine if the technology is able to provide both accurate and useful information,” Chan says.
Current research on ECG data gathered from wearable technology is limited but somewhat promising. For example, one study found that patients who wore wireless, digital watches to monitor their vital signs had 80-percent data accuracy compared to clinical monitors in a hospital. In a 2016 Canadian study, participants who wore personal fitness trackers on their wrists showed slightly lower heart rates compared to capacitive ECG monitoring.
“The jury is still out on the benefits of wearable tech,” Chan clarifies. “Continuous cardiac monitoring is most useful in patients at the highest level of risk, such as patients with severe cardiomyopathy, or in those patients with symptoms of palpitations where a diagnosis has been difficult to obtain due to inability to capture the palpitations on time-limited monitors, such as Holter or event monitors.”
Ultimately, Chan believes we need more research to validate the full benefits of this technology. It’s also important to keep in mind that tech is always changing, so new developments may improve accuracy in the long-term.
Numbers Can be Distracting
While making hospital-grade monitoring more accessible — as Myant says it’s done —might seem like a good thing, more information doesn’t always bring better results or improved health. And that’s important to stress to patients.
For example, one survey from The Conversation found that women who wore Fitbits felt increased pressure and guilt about not meeting their goals. Some even admitted to feeling less motivated to exercise. Another outcome? A sort of addiction to the data. Many participants said they felt “naked” without their devices.
Dr. Chan also worries the focus on tracking numbers with a device may end up distracting patients from forming healthy habits.
“I would strongly recommend that patients spend more time and energy focusing on the things that we do know make a difference in their long-term health and vitality, like excellent dietary habits, regular exercise — preferably 150 minutes each week of moderate to vigorous activity — and getting a good night’s rest,” Chan explains.
Lastly, there are data privacy and security concerns that come with all wearable tech. One study found these devices’ lower computing power puts them at higher risk of cyberattacks. While it’s not providers’ responsibility to protect the data patients choose to share with companies like Apple or Facebook, you might still advise them to read the fine print before downloading a new app or using a new device. And encourage them to stick with services from reputable healthcare organizations.
You can’t control if patients decide to purchase wearable devices for their health. But you can make them aware of the drawbacks and warn them not to rely completely on one piece of technology.
How we discovered the dark side of wearable fitness trackers, The Conversation.
4 Tips to Help Your Patients Protect Their Data When Using Health Apps, Florence Health.