The word is out. People are interested in wearables — particularly the biometrics they can record. In our webinar, Wearable Technology: Can It Actually Improve Your Health?, we looked at several key questions:

  1. Why would someone want to start using a wearable fitness tracker?
  2. What is the most valuable information a tracker can provide?
  3. How do phone trackers compare to wrist or clip-on trackers?
  4. What’s next for the wearable?

The high points from our discussion included numbers from a TechnologyAdvice study on wearable fitness tracker use, incentivizing health and wellness through gamification, and how trackers can impact greater population health modeling and the general practice of medicine.

Time constraints did not allow for the opportunity to discuss how the WellRight system is designed to answer some of the questions people have concerning wearables, namely the accuracy of biometric tracking, integration with third-party tracking software, and incentivizing a healthy lifestyle.

As discussed in the webinar, it’s no secret some trackers have issues with accuracy. Some comparisons of several devices have shown step count variances in excess of 20 percent, though the methodology of these studies is often suspect — many have skewed, limited samples, no control, no sampling of different device placements, and a general lack of academic rigor. That said, they have revealed some legitimate questions, and no one should be relying solely on data from a wearable device for medical decision-making. Consumer device manufacturers operating in the health and fitness space walk a very fine line if they don’t want their devices to be subject to stringent, expensive FDA approval and regulatory oversight.

With that in mind, deploying a Health Risk Assessment (HRA) alongside any corporate wellness initiative is highly encouraged. Depending on the frequency of testing, you get a number of hard data points to help establish a more accurate baseline. Also, it’s important to remember that the change in data is the most important thing to track. If a wearable device is off by 10 percent or so in actual steps measured, that 10 percent inaccuracy should translate to the other data points as well, so a rise or fall in steps measured day-to-day should prove more accurate. This same principle holds true when tracking biometrics like heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose levels, though more often devices tracking these metrics are subject to FDA approval. As a general rule, the more interested a doctor would be in the data a device is tracking, the more likely it is subject to FDA regulations.

The webinar closed with a great question and answer session, but there were a couple of questions I didn’t have answers to at the time. I’m happy to follow up on them here.

1. Are there any health concerns, similar to cell phone transmissions allegedly causing cancer, that are attributed to wearable trackers?

Most of the newest wearable trackers are using Bluetooth 4.0, or Bluetooth Low Energy, to communicate with your smartphone. The 2.4 GHz frequency used by these devices is classified as non-ionizing radiation, or radiation that lacks sufficient energy to break chemical bonds. The wireless router in your home and most cordless phones use the same frequency. As I stated in the webinar, there’s simply not enough data to conduct a true, peer-reviewed scientific study; the latest monographs from the WHO-affiliated International Agency Research for Cancer (IARC) have little to say about the wearable-related electromagnetic spectrum, but extrapolating from what is provided reveals there’s much greater concern about ultraviolet, microwave, and other more common forms of harmful radiation. If that doesn’t assuage your fears, there are devices that still require you to manually connect to a computer via a dock or USB cable to download the tracking information, though they’re usually older models.

2. What wearable devices can track blood pressure?

As far as I am aware, there are no public plans for Fitbit, Jawbone, or any of the other leading tracker manufacturers to add blood pressure monitoring in the near future. I was incorrect when I said I thought Fitbit’s new Charge HR would include blood pressure monitoring — the new device will only be adding heart rate tracking, not blood pressure. Currently both Fitbit and Jawbone only allow you to manually track blood pressure in their app. There are, however, a few niche products available: Withings, Omron, and iHealth all make wrist or arm cuff-style wireless blood pressure monitors, though their form factor is not nearly as sleek as more traditional wearable trackers. These devices have been certified for their accuracy in the US and EU by the FDA and CE, respectively. Unfortunately none of these devices also include the ability to track steps or other activities, so if you’re looking to monitor blood pressure AND more basic fitness metrics, you’ll likely need two devices.

In closing, wearable trackers are a great option for individuals or organizations looking to better visualize progress, incentivize wellness, and automate tracking of key fitness metrics. The technology is young, but very promising. Further advances in miniaturization and machine learning algorithms should help increase reliability and usability, but innovative individuals, care organizations, and businesses already see the value of these devices. When used correctly, wearable fitness trackers encourage a healthy lifestyle, and when part of a well-designed wellness initiative, can reduce healthcare costs.

 


Charles A. “Drew” Settles is a product analyst at TechnologyAdvice, a B2B demand generation firm dedicated to educating, advising, and connecting buyers and sellers of business technology. In his work, Charles has extensively written and researched the rise of fitness tracking devices, with a special focus on how healthcare organizations, insurance companies, employers, and individuals are using them to integrate with medical software, improve health, reduce healthcare costs, and ensure better care outcomes. Connect with Charles on LinkedIn.