How Wearables Are Changing Medical Research

Fitbit and the FDA are working to see smarter technology used in clinical trials

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The explosion of wearables is a curious case in the sense that, despite their immediate popularity and huge market, no one really knows what their future is. The market is set to hit $25 billion by 2019, but it remains to be seen whether the bulk of that will be in luxury devices like the Apple Watch, fitness trackers like the Fitbit or, as is increasingly looking possible, in the healthcare sector.

The rush to be a part of the wearables revolution resulted in some poor products, like the original incarnation of Apple’s Watch or the fitness trackers with limited or faulty capabilities. But, as their accuracy increases, new uses are being found within healthcare that could outpace developments in personal fitness if the technology proves effective.

And wearables are beginning to have an impact in one of the more sensitive areas of medical research - clinical trials. Now firmly part of the research arsenal, fitness wearables can provide (decidedly) supplementary data on basics like heart rate, temperature, sleeping habits, etc. The data collected by wearables like Fitbit is, presently, to be used only as part of a wider study; issues over the accuracy of what are primarily considered ‘consumer’ products will hold the use of wearables in clinical trials back, but steps are being taken to change this.

Wearables are currently not heavily regulated by the FDA. Some estimates predict that, as a result, we’re still a couple of years away from seeing them widely used in clinical trials. The FDA, though, ‘very publicly’ supports the use of new technology so long as its heavily examined prior to adoption.

Unsurprisingly given its popularity, Fitbit has been the brand of choice for clinical trials, and the company have announced its involvement in a number of trials - the company’s enthusiasm for the use of its products in trials is predictable, given the huge market it potentially signals expansion into. Fitbit has sold an impressive 36.7 million trackers since 2014, head and shoulders above its rivals, but securing healthcare contracts can give companies huge sources of secondary revenue.

Fitabase, a wearable data platform, claims it has collected over two billion minutes of physical data, across a four year period, on behalf of research customers. Aaron Coleman, CEO of Fitabase, told Wareable: ‘Historically, measuring participants' activity, sleep, and heart rate data over significant periods of time has been logistically difficult to collect and costly to measure. Fitbit's consumer-friendly technology provides our customers with an accurate, meaningful way to capture 24/7, real-time data so they can design innovative study protocols in ways not possible before.’

And, above everything else, using wearables in trials makes a great deal of sense. Sleeping habits and 24/7 heart rates have been a tricky metrics to monitor, requiring in-house attention and relatively expensive equipment. The ability to monitor these remotely through the use of wearables removes a huge barrier not just for the researchers but the participants.

Given the quite obvious need for accuracy in the data collected for clinical trials, doubts will remain over the viability of wearables at least until they’re heavily regulated. It seems only a matter of time before the FDA’s enthusiasm for new products and Fitbit’s desire to diversify its revenue streams conflate, though - if the wearables giant can work to create a more accurate product, implementation would doubtless be speedy. The data taken by fitness wearables has always naturally overlapped with that of medical research, and Fitbit looks to have found a way to aid medical research, all whilst growing its revenue. 

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