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Do Wearable Fitness Devices Like Fitbit Make a Difference?


Posted on March 6, 2015

Do Wearable Fitness Devices Like Fitbit Make a Difference?Do you have a Fitbit, FuelBand, or similar health-tracking wearable device? Many people do—it’s now a $1.6 billion dollar industry. Gartner Research expects it to rise to a $5 billion industry by 2016, according to this article from the Wall Street Journal. But as the popularity of these devices continues to increase, the question naturally rises—do they make a difference in health and exercise outcomes?

Yes and no.

It’s a bit too early to be able to tell in a statistical, scientific sense, but anecdotal evidence suggests that for many, wearing one of these device makes a difference. The Wall Street Journal article mentions that “Cigna Corp. recently gave activity-tracking arm bands, and health coaching, to 600 employees considered at risk of diabetes at four companies. A large majority, 86%, said they were more motivated to be active, said Cigna Product Solutions Vice President Eric Herbek.” The American Diabetes Association website reports that as of 2012, there were about 29.1 million Americans living with diabetes and 86 million who likely have prediabetes. In 2010, it was declared the 7th leading cause of death. This could be called an epidemic, and if these fitness tracker devices help people move more and eat healthier, what’s not to love?

Problems with these devices that are arising

Though it sounds like the perfect solution for many people’s lack of motivation in terms of their health, fitness devices also have some complicating factors that make it less simple to use them to boost health outcomes. One example is the fact that doctors and other health professionals don’t have easy access to these devices’ records of patient information. Also, the devices often use software that isn’t compatible with standard computers and tablets, so even if doctors could access it, they would have no simple way of importing the data and connecting it with patient medical files.

Privacy concerns deter physicians from recommending wearables

The Wall Street Journal article also cites the Kaiser Permanente physicians, who are conducting various pilots to determine these devices’ utility. At the same time, they’re nervous about what is happening to patient data and whether it’s being stored securely. It’s not—the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse recently reviewed 43 health- and fitness-tracking apps and found that about one-third of them sent data to an undisclosed third party not disclosed by the developer. Kaiser’s Dr. Young also pointed out that one-third of the apps lacked a privacy policy.

How can they do that with patient data?

Wearable fitness tracking devices fall into a tricky spot, legally. Health-privacy laws don’t apply to the makers of consumer devices, and the US Food and Drug Administration recently said it won’t regulate apps that aren’t being marketed to monitor a disease or condition, or to treat or diagnose a patient (according to the same Wall Street Journal article). This means that anyone who uses these devices could be sending their personal data to who-knows-where, but perhaps that’s not a big deal to many, considering that many people post photos of their lunch on social media regularly. It’s definitely the era of Big Data—who knows where it will lead. Hopefully to improved health incomes for Americans across the board.

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