Are fitness trackers the future of healthcare?

Imagine, your fitness tracker vibrates on your wrist. However, this is not because you have reached your daily goal of 10,000 steps or received an e-mail. Instead, your tracker alerts you that your blood pressure is high. Your doctor has seen the statistics in real time and wants you to reduce stress. Or maybe an analysis of your sweat shows that you are a bit too dehydrated. Or maybe the air around you is full of allergens and can trigger your asthma.

The sensors of our fitness trackers have improved a lot in recent years. We now have more accurate heart rate monitors, accelerometers to detect minute changes in movement and position, and ECG sensors in devices such as the Apple Watch, Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2, and Amazfit Verge 2 to report problems with our hearts.

However, many experts believe that this is only the beginning. In the near future, our fitness trackers will be equipped with an even wider selection of sensors to collect data that may save our lives, diagnose illnesses and keep our doctors up to date.

Develop sensors

In order for fitness trackers to become valuable health tools and diagnostic devices in the future, they need even more sensors. There are many different sensor technologies under development right now that could tell you more about your body and the environment in your near future.

For example, air detection and air analysis technology is currently receiving a lot of money and attention – especially as areas around the world become smoother and more polluted. In recent years, companies like Plume Labs and Cair have developed products that can alert you to changes in the air. This is appealing to people with respiratory problems, allergies and also to people with general pollution concerns.

These sensors are currently available in standalone devices, but could one day be converted into much smaller portable trackers.

But it's not just about feeling the air in your home or in the immediate area. To make data through the air more meaningful, this information could be cloud-based. In this way, emerging hazards, including pollen or smog, could be sourced from the set and then used for real-time updates. This is the idea behind the Plume Labs AIR app, which exchanges data with people in different locations.

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The noise-measuring device in the Apple Watch 5 constantly tracks the ambient noise around you – a hearing protection system

(Image credits: future)

Another sensor technology that could be used in wearables in the future is the way you can monitor and analyze your sweat. Engineers at the University of California at Berkeley have been working on a sensor that can measure electrolytes and metabolites in your sweat. It takes information about skin temperature and can alert you to many problems, including tiredness and high temperatures, which can be the first sign of dehydration or illness.

Your breath can not only provide sweat but also useful feedback. Devices that contain sensors to analyze the composition of your breath are already available to some athletes and health professionals, and could one day get into our fitness trackers.

The Cosmed K5 measures, for example, the oxygen consumption, the heart rate and the energy consumption of your breath. These types of devices are bulky, so turning them into wearable devices is a challenge. But with so much valuable data in your breath, a Fitbit, which also acts as a personal breathalyzer, may not be too far away.

That's just the beginning, of course. There are also new ways to track blood sugar levels, interpret your mood, guess your stress and measure your blood pressure. Some portable devices with customer contact are already integrated.

Flow of Plume Labs

Flow by Plume Labs is a small device that lets you see a picture of the air everywhere in real time

(Image credits: Plume Labs)

Connect the dots

The big question is, what do we do with all this new data?

"We've come to a point where the range of sensors is pretty good, so the focus now is to make the information more valuable," said FeibusTech President and Principal Analyst Mike Feibus, "Consumers who are sick of it To receive notifications, such as "You have gone 1,243 steps more than yesterday" or "You have spent 23% of the night in REM sleep". You want to know what that means. And what they can do to improve that. That is a challenge. "

The technology is only half of the equation. There are many who think these wearables really need to change the way we treat and diagnose health problems in the future, and to improve the way data is interpreted and then passed on to healthcare professionals.

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An advanced tracker that can detect heart problems may sound like a life-saving wearable. However, if the data are not easily understood, sent to your doctor, or properly considered for later treatment, they are not as helpful as they could be. In fact, it could prove more confusing.

Of course, wearable tech makers have the responsibility to work on making our data easier to interpret and access. However, there are only so many people who can handle potentially complicated medical information. That's where physicians come in, so they need to understand the potential of wearable technologies and know how to use, access, and interpret the data they collect.

"Fitness trackers are great. And if used properly, physicians can gain useful insights into the physical well-being of a patient, "says Farhan Amin, GP founder and founder of Concept Health Technologies, to Trustedreviews, "They can also be installed in hospitals to measure the activity and physical progress of a patient. This can be helpful in discharge planning to properly assist the patient before discharge. "

Although fitness trackers are recommended by some doctors, they are not commonplace – at least not yet.

"The challenge is to integrate the fitness tracker into the existing healthcare environment," says Amin. He believes the answer is a networked approach. "To move forward, healthcare providers and fitness tracker companies need to work closely together to ensure that the patient benefits from the tracking."

While implementing new methods to track and diagnose problems may seem like a costly undertaking, it makes sense for both patients and healthcare professionals. "This is the opportunity to turn the devices into the eyes and ears of our doctors for 99.99% of the time we are away from their offices," says Feibus.

Babylon health

Babylon Health connects you to family doctors through your phone

(Photo credits: Babylon)

One company that is already working to understand the data collected by fitness trackers and to improve their perspective and access to healthcare is Babylon Health.

"With our Monitor product, we're already helping users better understand the information they gather with their fitness and wellness equipment," said Keith Grimes, director of clinical artificial intelligence and innovation at Babylon Health. "Users can check their activity, weight, energy consumption and distance by integrating with popular wearables like Fitbit and Garmin."

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But Grimes explains that this is only the beginning. Future plans are to track mood and other measurements and integrate them into a comprehensive health record. "In this way, fitness tracker data can help people deal with their chronic conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, to better understand their disease risk and take action to prevent it," explains Grimes. "This will even help doctors and our AI make diagnoses, counsel treatments and better manage their health."

For this to work, both Grimes and Amin point to the need for accurate data collected with the consent of the patient. "If we want to help people manage their health with fitness trackers, we first need to make sure this is safe," says Grimes. People will increasingly need to know what they agree with, who sees their data and what it is used for.

Babylon health

Monitor will create a more complete picture of your health and fitness

(Photo credits: Babylon)

Looking to the future

Amin believes that various types of portable and consumer-oriented sensor technologies will become a standard method in the future to collect more data about patients.

"I think the wrist will remain the mainstay of the fitness tracker," he says. "It goes without saying that people wear wristwatches. There is a lot of research on Smart Patches, Smart Ink and Smart Clothing. All of this is really exciting, but none of them is ready for the consumer. "

But in the future, our wrists will be just the beginning. We can expect more from a holistic approach to health with the technicians and AI assistants who are already in our homes.


The Withings Move ECG can create an electrocardiogram (ECG) and alert you to the symptoms of atrial fibrillation

(Image credits: future)

"At some point, fitness trackers or the current generation of fitness trackers will be outdated and replaced with an even more intuitive and passive form of data collection," predicts Amin. "Smart homes, smart cars and smart offices will communicate with each other and potentially capture physiological and biochemical data in a non-invasive way."

As we speak, more sensors are added to fitness trackers and many more are in development. The challenge is how to turn these trackers from cool lifestyle devices into potentially life-saving health tools. To do this, we need ways to better interpret our own data, and the understanding of medical professionals who know exactly what the technology is capable of. That way, our doctors are better able to look after us, and we're all better informed about our health because we can keep an eye on them around the clock.

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