Your Fitbit is great for measuring activity and keeping you on task when exercising, but the device has much more potential in the health field.
Researchers are beginning to use the popular wearable devices to conduct research and monitor for chronic medical issues that could improve and save lives in the process.
“These organizations have recognized the opportunity that wearables give them to connect with their patients no matter where they are,” Harry Wang, a mobility and apps analyst with the market research firm Parks Associates, tells HealthTech.
Here are three ways that innovators in the healthcare industry are making Fitbits work for them:
1. Carolinas Tracks Chronic Heart Failure Patients with Wearables
At Carolinas HealthCare System in North and South Carolina, doctors and patient engagement specialists are using Fitbit wristbands in conjunction with a special app to keep tabs on patients with chronic heart failure.
The wristband is used with the MyCarolinas Tracker App, which has thus far tracked more than 300,000 measurements of some 2,000 patients participating in a program that aims to gather all clinical and patient data and provide interventions when necessary.
“One man — and we noticed this from his Fitbit data — was not getting any steps,” Pamela Landis, vice president of information services at Carolinas HealthCare System, said at a symposium last year, according to mobihealthnews. “We contacted him and found out his wife had been admitted to the hospital. So he had been sitting at her bedside and wasn’t really able to take care of himself. We got social work down there … got him walking around the hospital while he was with his wife. We also made sure he was getting nutritious food while he was there.”
2. Fitbit Attempts to Tackle Sleep Apnea
Fitbit data also showed that another patient in the Carolinas program wasn’t sleeping well, prompting her to go in for a sleep study in which she was diagnosed with sleep apnea. The wearables company believes this use case has much larger potential.
Earlier this year, Conor Heneghan, Fitbit's lead research scientist, told CNBC that the company hopes to use the equipment to monitor sleep apnea. With nearly 22 million Americans experiencing a form of sleep apnea, according to the American Sleep Apnea Association, and revenue for the sleep apnea market expected to jump to $6.7 billion by 2021, the potential for impact is huge.
The company is moving closer to its goal, as Fitbit’s new Ionic smartwatch is fitted with a “new kind of optical sensor,” that has the potential to gather the kinds of data required to identify sleep apnea, The Verge reports.
“There’s a vast number of people who go undiagnosed with this condition,” James Park, Fitbit’s co-founder and CEO, told The Verge. “We think we can actually start to surface these issues for people over time, which can have a profound impact on people’s health.”
Fitbit still has some hurdles to jump, including getting FDA approval and accurately recording supplemental measurements necessary to correctly diagnose sleep apnea with the device. But the company is conducting internal trials with partners to uncover how the wearable could be more aptly designed to monitor the issue.
3. Diabetes Management Gets a Boost from Wearables
More than 9 percent of the U.S. population is living with diabetes, representing more than 30 million people, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
In December, Fitbit teamed up with Ireland-based medical device company Medtronic to develop a mobile app that eliminates the middleman in monitoring the impact of exercise on glucose levels, which could enable better diabetes management.
For patients living with Type 2 diabetes, the app collects data from Medtronic’s iPro2 myLog continuous glucose monitors and combines it with Fitbit’s activity tracker to determine how exercise impacts a patient’s glucose levels, eliminating the need to physically enter activity data.
By integrating the diagnostic tools with the device, the tech can provide a better overall picture of patient health for providers as well as help patients better understand how to manage their condition.
"By creating a connection between physical activity and glucose levels, our iPro2 myLog mobile app solution provides new tools and insights, so that physicians can optimize therapy and patients can better understand how to manage their diabetes,” Laura Stoltenberg, vice president and general manager of non-intensive diabetes therapies at Medtronic, said in a statement.