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5 Reasons Why Wearables Aren’t Taking On Heart Disease … Yet

If you’re waiting for wearables to sniff out your health issues, it’s gonna be a while.

As devices like the Apple Watch and Fitbit become more popular, more people than ever have heart rate-monitoring technology at their disposal. So why hasn’t this triggered a revolution in treating heart disease, which kills more people every year in America than anything else? Euan Thomson, whose company AliveCor is working on the creation of health wearables, told KQED that this problem is more complex than it appears.

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The Technology Isn’t There Yet
According to Thomson, heart disease, unfortunately, can not be detected by currently available fitness trackers. There are a few reasons for this: first of all, the metric that doctors use to detect heart disease is not heart rate, but ECG, the measurement of the heart’s electrical activity. “If you just look at heart rate patterns using one of these monitors—without the ECG—you wouldn’t know what’s indicative of something being medically wrong, or whether it’s because you’ve vigorously exercised, for instance,” he says.

We Need More Data
In addition to the currently insufficient technology, more contextual data is needed to draw the connections that would allow a wearable to detect heart disease. “The problem is that we know there are a lot of things that are generally bad for the heart, but that’s very unspecific,” Thomson tells KQED. By increasing the frequency of ECG tracking, hopefully connections between cause and effect will start to form.

Regulatory Hurdles
None of these devices, including Apple Watch and Fitbit, are approved by the FDA to measure heart rate. Without clinical tests and FDA approval, it’s impossible to know whether their measurements are even accurate. “Heart rate is a wellness metric that I’d put in the same category of step-tracking,” Thomson says. “It’s kind of useful for fitness, but it isn’t a health care indicator.”

Photo: Kārlis Dambrāns

More Investment Needed
Thomson says that with more investment into medical technology, wearables could end up providing data for doctors that is difficult to gather now. The potential for this kind of monitoring is particularly great for people who are in rehabilitation after a heart operation. Thomson says he can envision people using wearables to track themselves slowly increasing their exercise levels after a heart surgery, allowing them to go home instead of staying in residential rehab.

“Their doctor could say something like, ‘I want to measure your heart rate while you take 2,000 steps over the next few weeks. Then I want to increase your exercise to 6,000 steps. I don’t want your heart rate going above 80 beats per minute,'” he says.

Photo: Shinya Suzuki

Silicon Valley Has To Step Up
Thomson isn’t sure this is something that Silicon Valley is truly interested in. “It’s a very small club that is monitoring the ECG [right now]. But that is the way these other companies should go,” he says. “The amount of money being spent on useless metrics from a health care standpoint [in Silicon Valley] is stunning.”

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But he’s hopeful that the technology will progress if it’s invested in. “In the next few years, I believe that the industry will be able to spot the characteristics of someone who’s likely to have a heart attack in the next three days,” he says.

If wearables do move in that direction, it could be a seismic shift in the treatment of America’s most deadly disease. If that happens, the debate over wearables’ usefulness would be over for good. Read more of KQED’s interview with Euan Thomson here.

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About the author

I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.

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