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VOL. 8 | NO. 14 | Saturday, March 28, 2015

Go, Go Gadget Health

Wearable tech portends health industry shift

By Andy Meek

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The proliferation of fitness bands, activity trackers, smartwatches that monitor a variety of health-related metrics and more makes one thing clear when it comes to health care.

Emily Wickliff, assistant manager of Muddy's Bake Shop, uses a Fitbit and her smartphone to track her level of activity. Wearable tech and companion apps are among the big consumer trends in health care right now. However, doctors haven't universally embraced the technology and the reliability of data generated by wearable devices.      

(Memphis News/Andrew J. Breig)

More than ever before, people are relying on gadgets to measure – and hopefully improve – large parts of their lives. Indeed, all that technology is making it possible for people to get a closer look at the number of steps they’re taking during the day, how active they really are, how many calories they’re consuming and all the different ways they have room to improve.

Wearable tech and companion apps that focus on the so-called “quantified self” are among the big consumer trends in health care and technology at the moment. And interest in them will only increase for reasons that include Apple releasing its smartwatch in a matter of weeks, which will see interest intensify in wearable tech since the company that revolutionized phones, computers and music consumption is now getting in on the act.

Emily Wickliff, assistant manager of Muddy’s Bake Shop in the Sanderlin shopping center, is one of those people who have dabbled with wearable tech to see if it can make a difference in her quality of life. In December 2013, she was given a Fitbit, a wristband that measures general levels of activity during the day.

Apple executives have been touting the Apple Watch's capability to share some collected health data with a user's doctor.

(Apple)

Fitbits include a corresponding smartphone app, providing a granular level of activity detail for the user. Meanwhile, Wickliff also uses a standalone app on her smartphone – which does not require a corresponding piece of hardware but can integrate with her Fitbit – called MyFitnessPal, which helps with things such as counting calories by tracking foods eaten during the day.

“I chose the Fitbit because I had a hard time staying motivated about tracking what I was eating and being active,” Wickliff said. “Using it isn’t burdensome at all. And the cool thing about it is as you’re more active during the day and burn more calories, the Fitbit measures that and connects to the MyFitnessPal. If I’m less active during the day, for example, and don’t burn as many calories, the app will adjust the level for the day. It’s all really easy to keep up with, and I use it now mostly as a nudge in the right direction.”

The technology and health industries, meanwhile, are still coming to grips with the use of this kind of technology, which is still in its early days in many respects.

Apple executives, for example, have been touting the ability to use the Apple Watch’s health-tracking capabilities to share some collected details with a person’s doctor, if the user chooses, to help improve their medical care.

MyFitnessPal, a standalone smartphone app, can be integrated with Fitbit data. 

(MyFitnessPal)

Doctors haven’t universally embraced this technology yet. The reliability of the data – steps counted, or sleep quality as measured by the device, for example – varies from device to device. And Steve Blumenthal, an attorney with Waller Lansden Dortch & Davis LLP, for example, said there may even be malpractice concerns with a doctor accepting at face value a patient’s data presented via a piece of wearable technology.

Dr. Rebecca Krukowski, an assistant professor in the department of preventive medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, suggests that these devices not be relied on particularly heavily by themselves, but rather fit into a mix of tools as part of a well-rounded personal health regimen.

“They’re certainly trendy at the moment, but there’s some emerging research saying people are using these trackers for a little while and then put them in a drawer and stop using them,” she said. “Also, they don’t have the counselor aspect you get in person that keeps you accountable to your own goals and feedback and helps you make progress toward your own goals.

“A lot of these devices do allow you to set goals and provide some sort of visual feedback. Some of them also have social support components to them, where if you have a Fitbit and I have a Fitbit, I can see what you’re doing, you can see what I’m doing, we can chat about it and encourage each other. But again, it doesn’t have that programmatic component to it that encourages something like weight loss and the behaviors that go along with it.”

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