Wearable devices under microscope for versatility assessment

SYDNEY: Smartwatches are transforming into full-blown medical devices capable of doing everything from assessing fitness levels and flagging sleep problems to monitoring heart rhythms and helping users to fall pregnant.

But a world-first study into the devices, based in Australia, is being launched to test whether wearable technology really can save lives, and if doctors should be prescribing Fitbits and Apple Watches along with healthy diets and exercise.

Sydney’s Westmead Hospital associate professor Saurabh Kumar, who will conduct the research through University of Sydney after being awarded a CSANZ-Bayer Young Investigator Grant, said smartwatch wearers were already approaching doctors based on heart-rate information collected from the technology, and cardiologists needed to know just how accurate and reliable their readings were.

“A lot of patients do go to GPs having no symptoms but their wearable device has prompted them to see a doctor,” he said.

“There are also isolated reports of people being diagnosed with heart conditions on the basis of high heart rates.

“Given the recent explosion in wearable devices, we need to systematically and scientifically evaluate these devices against a gold standard and determine whether they are capable of detecting changes in heart rate and common cardiac rhythm problems.”

Advanced health features in the latest generation of smartwatches include a yet-to-be-released electrocardiogram monitor in the Apple Watch 4, stress assessments inside Samsung’s Galaxy Watch, and the ability to track your heart rate, deep and light sleep cycles, and even women’s reproductive cycles with the Fitbit Versa smartwatch.

The information collected from these devices could tip off doctors to health problems including sleep apnoea, metabolic disorders, or a trial fibrillation; an irregular heart rhythm which was a major cause of strokes in Australia.

Fitbit Asia Pacific Health Solutions director John Gillman said the company’s fitness trackers were designed to help users manage their own health, rather than replace a doctor, but it launched a new program called Fitbit Care this month offering coaching and disease prevention for health insurance companies and employers.