Smart watches and activity trackers market themselves as convenient and stylish ways to monitor your health. They’re certainly popular—Apple, Fitbit, and Pebble are expected to ship over 76 million devices by the end of 2015. Of course, many can’t analyze the data themselves, so they’re bringing it to their doctors to have a look at.
But as it turns out, doctors aren’t finding this data helpful at all. They’re both questioning the data’s value, as well as the validity of the enormous amount of data.
“I’m an oncologist, and I have these patients who are proto ‘quantified self’ kinds of people,” reported Sage Bionetworks oncologist Andrew Trister in an MIT Technology Review article. “They come in with these very large Excel spreadsheets, with all this information—I have no idea what to do with that.”
According to Trister, from a clinical standpoint, it’s quite difficult to point out trends that may exist in the patient-generated data. Researchers are finding that a remarkably few amount of the consumer-oriented wearable devices stack up to the reliability a medical-grade wearable device might have.
It also doesn’t help matters that consumer-oriented wearables—like Fitbit and the Apple Watch—aren’t clinically validated by the FDA to function with the same reliability standards that a medical device would have. They’re rather marketed under the much less extensive “wellness-focused” guidelines.
Rather than fitness trackers, which provide a data spread of general activity, medical wearables should focus on collecting data from specific types of activity. One in particular that holds a lot of promise, according to Trister, is the Embrace wristband from Empatica, which uses an electrodermal activity sensor to measure skin’s electrical conductance, in order to track seizure activity in epileptics.
That’s not to say using fitness trackers is a completely worthless endeavor, however. They do help people to be aware of their level of activity—and lack thereof—in order to make conscious health decisions. Doctors aren’t quite ready to deal with the sheer amount of information at the moment, nor do they believe the quality of sensors is strong enough for their data to be clinically relevant.
Hopefully clinicians will become aware of these trackers as their technology improves, because these wearables could prove useful for helping patients manage chronic diseases.