Patients no longer need to travel to doctors’ offices for detailed heart rate or blood pressure readings, as consumer tech giants produce increasingly sophisticated smartwatches and high-tech rings that can continuously measure vital signs and sleep patterns.
And, as companies like Apple, Fitbit, and Samsung push to integrate sleep trackers and heart rate monitors into medical visits, including by funding large-scale clinical studies in an effort to increase adoption, large health centers like Stanford Medicine are taking notice.
Though the market for people tracking their own vitals is expanding, getting buy-in from doctors and hospital systems could significantly expand their customer base.
According to Stanford’s Michael Snyder, who leads many of the health systems’ wearable projects, it’s up to health systems to quickly determine whether the data is useful to doctors and how to efficiently extract it from the devices. He went on to say that Stanford is probably spending millions of dollars on research into these products.
Stanford has collaborated with Apple on a large-scale study to see if smartwatches can detect irregular heartbeats. It is also investigating whether other consumer devices, such as Oura Rings and Fitbits, can provide doctors with more accurate and frequent measurements of their patients’ health. Researchers, for example, have developed a system that uses heart rate and temperature data to predict the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, which could eventually be used to alert patients to stay at home.
While Stanford’s health record system currently cannot integrate wearable data into health records in real time, researchers have created a separate database that can aggregate medical records, data from wearable devices, and other information provided by patients. Snyder stated that the health system recently submitted a prototype for that system to a major research journal.
It’s unclear how the devices compare in detecting irregular heartbeats to clinical-grade heart rate monitors, which doctors typically use to take snapshots of patients’ heart activity while they’re in the office, according to Snyder. However, passively taking readings from smartwatches that patients already wear at home could potentially help doctors establish a better baseline for heart activity.
“There are circadian rhythms, and there are just natural fluctuations throughout the day,” Snyder explained. “They literally measure you for 15 seconds” at the doctor’s office, he added. It’s just a very poor measurement, and the devices are measuring 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Some of those measurements are far more accurate and reproducible.”
Some physicians are still skeptical that data from consumer devices is valuable, according to Snyder, but he added that the health system is proactively investigating whether the technology can be useful.
“Everyone sees it coming,” Snyder explained. “We’re in this sort of twilight zone where some are actively embracing it and others are dismissive,” he said.
There’s also the issue of ensuring that patients who can’t afford the devices – Apple Watches, for example, cost a few hundred dollars – aren’t barred from participating in cutting-edge medical programs. Though most of Stanford’s wearables programs are still in the clinical trial phase, Sumit Shah, Stanford’s director of clinical innovation and digital health, told Insider that the university is looking into how lower-cost options like the Fitbit compare to higher-end devices.
“It’s critical that we can use a device-agnostic approach,” Shah said.