Wearable Devices to Monitor Health

by Zahid Ajaz

Wearable electronic activity monitors hold great promise in helping people reach their fitness and health goals. These increasingly sophisticated devices help wearers improve their wellness by constantly monitoring their activities and bodily responses. This information is organized into companion computer programs and mobile apps.

Given the large and quickly growing market for these devices, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston analyzed 13 of these activity monitors, such as those made by Fitbit, Jawbone or Nike, to compare how the devices and their companion apps work to motivate the wearer. Researchers found that while many of these devices or apps were in line with recommendations from the health community, several are missing aspects that are important for reaching goals. In the end, device selection is dependent on the user’s personal needs and preferences.

Do wearable lifestyle activity monitors really work?

Research highlights similarities between devices and methods used by health care providers with their patients. Despite their rising popularity, little is known about how these monitors differ from one another, what options they provide in their applications and how these options may impact their effectiveness. The feedback provided by these devices can be as, if not more, comprehensive than that provided by health care professionals.

These devices improve on standard pedometers by measuring and providing feedback on several health/fitness dimensions including calories burned, type of exercise activity undertaken, sleep quality and measurements of heart rate, skin sweat, and body temperature. Many, including Jawbone, Fitbit, and Nike, have goal-setting and progress feedback, social support, and an array of easy-to-read charts and progress trackers based on the users’ individual goals.

The research team investigated 13 commercially available activity monitors, including devices by Basis, BodyMedia, Misfit, Fitbug, Ibitz, Polar and Withings, to detail what tactics they use to promote healthy and fit behaviors, determine how closely they match successful interventions and compare the functionality of several devices and their apps to the recommendations of health care professionals.

The researchers found that most of the interactive tools in these devices’ apps for goal setting, self monitoring and feedback were in line with what health care professionals recommend for their patients. The number of available app tools was similar to the amount of techniques used by health care professionals to increase their patients’ physical activity. However, several tactics associated with successfully increasing physical activity were uncommon in or absent from the monitor systems, including action planning, instruction on how to do the behavior, commitment and problem solving.

In the end, the apps with the most features may not be as useful as those with fewer but more effective tools. Individual success is also likely influenced by individual preferences and needs, such as the need for a waterproof monitor for swimming or a device with energy balance information including food logs, which may make them more suitable for weight loss attempts than systems that monitor activity and weight only.

Beyond the more typical uses for weight loss aids, electronic activity monitors may also be useful for patients when they are released from the hospital as a measure of recovery and quality of life. The consistent, objective measures used by these monitors could help health care professionals identify at-risk individuals for secondary prevention and rehabilitation purposes.

This content analysis provides preliminary information as to what these devices are capable of, laying a foundation for clinical, public health and rehabilitation applications. Future studies are needed to further investigate new types of electronic activity monitors and to test their feasibility, acceptability and ultimately their public health impact.

Wearable devices are not always reliable or secure according to research.

The market for digital devices like smartwatches and fitness bands is growing exponentialy, with around nineteen million units likely to be sold worldwide this year. They can measure everything from heart rate to physical activity, temperature and even mental wellbeing. But research into the rise of consumer health wearables cautions against overenthusiasm.

One major research into this sphere says that devices are marketed under the premise that they will help improve general health and fitness, but the majority of manufacturers provide no empirical evidence to support the effectiveness of their products.

Around a third of users stop wearing these devices after six months, and half after one year. Evidence for the effectiveness of these devices is anecdotal and there is little scientific evidence as to how they improve health. While consumer wearables could be more useful for patients with conditions like diabetes or cardiac problems, current solutions are still in the early stages of development. 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. 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.But although the use of pedometers is linked to an increase in physical activity and a decrease in blood pressure, there is no evidence of long term change. Research also shows that the reliability and validity of wearable devices is also concerning. Recent comparisons between various wearables for tracking physical activity showed large variations in accuracy between different devices — with error margins of up to 25%.In addition, personal data generated by the device is collected and stored by the manufacturer, not the user, and sometimes sold on to third parties, while digital traces of behaviour like location and time can be used to reveal the user’s identity. The researchers say that devices need to be validated and standardised to ensure that wearable technology becomes an asset for healthcare in the 21st century.

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