What you need to know about the forces reshaping our industry.


March 4, 2019

For these smartwatch users, their devices were lifesavers (literally)

Daily Briefing

    There is a growing list of individuals who say wearable devices, like Apple Watch and Fitbit, are going beyond fitness tracking and actually saving lives, Dalvin Brown reports for USA Today.

    Your telehealth cheat sheet on wearables

    How an Apple Watch detected a medical emergency

    Take 18-year-old Deanna Recktenwald. On April 2, 2019, Recktenwald's Apple Watch instructed her to "seek medical attention" because her heart rate had risen to dangerously high levels. Though Recktenwald said she wasn't experiencing any unusual symptoms, she decided to heed to the warning and rushed to an urgent care facility where she was diagnosed with kidney failure.

    Stacey Recktenwald, the teenager's mother, said, "Without this watch, I fear she would've been one of the kids on the news—the healthy kid that goes off to college and dies in their sleep." Recktenwald's diagnosis prompted her parents and three siblings to get checked out—and they all tested positive for kidney disease.

    While Recktenwald's story is shocking, it's becoming increasingly common, Brown reports. For example, when 34-year-old Michael Glenn's Fitbit alerted him that his resting heart rate was 40 beats per minute—well below the 60-100 beats per minute that is considered normal for an adult—his wife convinced him to go to the hospital. He learned he had a blocked coronary artery and partially blocked central artery.

    "Doctors said I had a 50/50 chance of survival," Glenn said. "I'm just a husky guy who bought a Fitbit so I could continue to eat more pizza. Turns out, it saved my life."

    Wearables were designed to save lives

    While some consumers view wearables as trendy workout accessories, the devices were actually designed to be able to detect medical emergencies and underlying health conditions, Brown reports.

    Fitbits, which are not an FDA-approved medical device, have employed technology to monitor wearers' heart beats all day, which gives the device the ability to detect abnormal heart rhythms that a doctor might not detect.

    "Fitbit technology has redefined how users can learn about their health by making data that was previously only available in a lab accessible on the wrist," the company said.

    Apple Watch also has several features that help people during medical emergencies including fall detection, notifications for abnormal heart rhythms, and the ability to call 911 using the watch. The latest version of the Apple Watch, Series 4, includes an ECKG app and has been approved by FDA as a Class 2 medical device.

    What's more, while the data wearables collect are primarily used today to help doctors improve care based on a patient's daily behaviors, some experts say they will soon offer clinical-grade data that doctors could use to make diagnoses.

    For example, Kevin McGinnis, communications and technology adviser for the National Association of State EMS Officials, predicted in the future wearables will be advanced enough to "pump insulin, defibrillate the heart, or pump some other drug as a result of an emergency happening in the body."

    Are smartwatches too sensitive?

    As the popularity of wearables increase in medical settings, some experts are pointing out that the smartwatches aren't infallible, Brown reports. The devices, they note, could result in false 911 calls or inaccurate readings.

    For example, emergency dispatch centers were frustrated when a group of skiers hit the slopes without turning off their Apple Watch Series 4s. When the skiers fell, the fall detection service on their watches automatically dialed 911, regardless of if the fall resulted in injury.

    McGinnis said, "We've seen that in the past with the 'help-I've-fallen-and-I-can't-get-up' devices, the ones that elderly and housebound people tend to have. We want to avoid a lot of unfounded alert systems."

    James Ip, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine, who has studied fitness trackers' ability to identify a-typical heartbeat patterns, said, "[C]ertain heart rhythms can throw a sensor off, leading to a perceived high heart rate reading." He added, "If a device is too loose on your wrist, a reading can be off. Skin color, ambient environments and other factors can also produce false readings."

    But while Ip conceded the devices "aren't perfect," he said, "when taken together with medical-grade devices, these things can be potentially helpful. Sometimes, it's better than having nothing at all" (Brown, USA Today, 2/20; Baptiste Su, Forbes, 9/14/2018).

    Your telehealth cheat sheet on wearables

    Telehealth Primer: Wearables

    Wearable technology encompasses the range of devices used by consumers to track their health- and activity-related data. As the multiple functions of wearables on the market continue to expand, consumers are becoming more invested in the potential for these devices to improve their daily habits. Wearable technology can help to facilitate patient activation and improve clinical outcomes.

    The primer details how rising interest in health data, advancing care innovation, and expansion of FDA device approvals has impacted the adoption of wearables.

    Download Now

    Have a Question?


    Ask our experts a question on any topic in health care by visiting our member portal, AskAdvisory.