Image source: Fitbit

Health information from wearables should be taken with caution according to new study

A combination of new vendors, new devices, and greater end-user awareness has propelled the worldwide wearables market to record levels during 2015. IDC’s analysts expect this growth to continue, and worldwide wearable device shipments to triple by 2019. According to Forrester Research, one in five US adults has either owned or used a wearable in 2015.

It is abundantly clear that wearables are becoming hot items. But how useful are these devices in helping us improve our health and fitness? Will consumer wearable technology ever be adopted or accepted by the medical community?

A recent study, published in PLOS Medicine and conducted by Lancaster University, the University of the West of England, and Nottingham Trent University, concluded that health claims by manufacturers of the current generation of wearables should be taken with caution. And that there really isn’t much evidence regarding the long-term health benefits of keeping a wearable strapped to your wrist.

Researchers say, an over reliance on wearables could potentially give users a false sense of security about their health and even lead them to incorrectly self-diagnose some medical condition. Various wearables for tracking physical activity showed large variations in accuracy between different devices, with error margins of up to 25% according to the study.

We wrote recently about a lawsuit filed against Fitbit, that alleged that the company’s heart rate monitors are inaccurate. Its heart-monitoring technology was called “wildly inaccurate” and the company was accused of false advertising. Consumer Electronics subsequently conducted its own study finding that the errors might not be as widespread as implied by the lawsuit. Nevertheless, even if faulty readings only happen once in a while, they can still be extremely dangerous, because they can cause people to overexert themselves while believing that their pulse is normal.

According to the PLOS Medicine study, wearables are more likely to be purchased by individuals who already lead a healthy lifestyle and want to quantify their progress. The use of pedometers and smartphone apps has been associated with significant increases in physical activity and significant decreases in body mass index and blood pressure, particularly with the older generation. However, interventions involving pedometers and smartphone apps show no evidence of continued behavioural change. This claim is supported by other studies which show that 32% of users stop wearing activity trackers after six months, and 50% after one year.

The researchers did note, however, that those with conditions like diabetes or cardiac disease would benefit a little more from using the devices than the general population.

“For chronic conditions, wearables could effortlessly provide detailed longitudinal data that monitors patients’ progress without the need to involve more sophisticated, uncomfortable, and expensive alternatives,” said co-author Dr. David Ellis of Lancaster University, in a press release. “For instance, it is possible to identify the severity of depressive symptoms based on the number of conversations, amount of physical activity, and sleep duration using a wearable wristband and smartphone app.”

Wearables could also help monitor sleep apnea, a sleep disorder in which breathing repeatedly stops and starts; detect early symptoms of Parkinson’s using microanalysis of body movement data; and provide a platform for at-home management of long-term chronic conditions such as obesity, anxiety, panic disorders, PTSD, and asthma.

In spite of these promises, the actual use of consumer wearables within a clinical population remains limited. The potential applications described above are still in the early stages of development, have not been approved for medical use.

Jawbone certainly seems to be heading in this direction. In an interview with Infoq, Brian Wilt, Jawbone’s Head of Science and Analytics, revealed that Jawbone is planning to put much more emphasis in the future on analysis of data and providing actionable insights. The company has an ambitious ultimate goal, of predicting and managing medical conditions.

While we would not necessarily disagree with findings from this study, wearables on the market today are “fairly basic”, with fitness devices leading the way and smartwatches following. This is, however, set for a big change in the coming years.

“Smarter clothing, eyewear, and even hearables are all in their early stages of mass adoption,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst for IDC.

“Though at present these may not be significantly smarter than their analogue counterparts, the next generation of wearables are on track to offer vastly improved experiences and perhaps even augment human abilities.”

“The smartwatch we have today will look nothing like the smartwatch we will see in the future. Cellular connectivity, health sensors, not to mention the explosive third-party application market all stand to change the game and will raise both the appeal and value of the market going forward.”

Subsequent generations of health and fitness devices will have the potential to become a major asset in the health care market, while providing patients and professionals quantified results that’ll help diagnose seen or unseen medical issues.

“Moving forward, practitioners and researchers should try to work together and open a constructive dialogue on how to approach and accommodate these technological advances in a way that ensures wearable technology can become a valuable asset for health care in the 21st century,” the study concludes.

More information about the study can be found on this link.

Ivan Jovin

Ivan has been a tech journalist for over 7 years now, covering all kinds of technology issues. He is the guy who gets to dive deep into the latest wearable tech news.

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