In April of 2016, a 42-year-old man arrived at Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. The medical team noticed he had atrial fibrillation (an irregular and fast heart beat). He needed acute care.

The doctors were not sure what caused it, whether it was chronic or if it was triggered by seizures which the patient had 20 minutes before arriving at the hospital. The doctors had to act differently depending on what it was. If the problem was triggered by the seizures then they had to use a defibrillator to alleviate the arrhythmia, but if the atrial fibrillation was chronic that method could result in a stroke.

Thankfully, the team noticed that the patient was wearing a Fitbit fitness tracker, so they looked at the heart rate data recorded by the device.

heart rate

Doctor Alfred Sacchetti noticed that the patient’s normal pulse was 70-80 beats per minute but that during the last several hours it was at the rate of 140-160 beats per minute. This confirmed that it was the seizures that caused it which meant that defibrillation could have terrible consequences and even be lethal.

For the first time in history a fitness tracker was used in this way. Now we can all agree that fitness trackers not only track fitness and energy levels but can also save lives!

Up until that incident doctors encouraged patients to wear fitness trackers to be more activite. Now these devices can be used in emergency situations. Fitness trackers are not approved by medical organizations at the moment and using their data is up to the doctor.

These devices have an increasing potential that may provide doctors with objective information in emergency situations.

People’s reactions:

“When I checked what my Fitbit fitness tracker could do I noticed some inaccuracies in immediate measurements. However, daily data is accurate. This story is trustworthy.”

“Last week I had a patient with hypertension who complained that she was feeling unwell. Her fitness tracker showed that her pulse was 160 beats per minute. We diagnosed her with aortic aneurysm.”

“I am very happy for that man. I also wear a fitness tracker. It’s a great way to carry your health data with you.”

Welltory’s comment:

Many people ask us, “If fitness trackers can save lives, why doesn’t that happen? Why don’t they track anomalies and call an ambulance? They can, can’t they.”

In theory, yes. Despite sensor inaccuracies and technological imperfections on that market we can detect when a person’s health deteriorates. But there are two problems with using these devices to save lives:

  • Only a small percentage of doctors are positive about modern devices and do not reject the data saying it is not scientific. Some of our users tried to show their health data collected by their fitness trackers to their therapists complaining of fatigue, but the doctors didn’t take the data into account. The man in that story was rather lucky that his doctor was open to any means that would help him in that situation.
  • Almost every country has very strict certification and licensing laws for medical services and devices. If, for example, FitBit claims that they can save someone’s life in the situation of a heart attack, the FDA will come to them the next day and start a multiyear and multimillion dollar certification process that will probably not result in them receiving a license. The only device on the market that is not certified as medical but is FDA approved is Apple Watch, we can only guess what it cost them. So in practice fitness trackers don’t save lives not because it is impossible, but — paradoxically — because it is forbidden.  Besides, there is another side of the problem, if Fitbit doesn’t detect a heart attack (and it is possible, because as we have mentioned above sensors and technology aren’t perfect) who is to blame in that case?

As a result, the only thing that producers of fitness devices and apps can do is send the user notifications like, “there is something strange going on with your body, we know what it is but we are not going to diagnose. At your own risk, you can look at the diagram and at your own risk you can decide whether you need to call an ambulance and pray that the doctor will be tolerant to the new technology.”

At Welltory, we are going to solve this problem in the same way. We find something unusual, we notify our users and send their data to a certified doctor. If the doctor sees that there is a potential health risk, we recommend the user to seek medical advice and tell them what they should pay particular attention to. And in order to prevent situations when the doctor doesn’t want to analyse the user’s data collected from different gadgets, we will be developing relations with clinics and working on brining awareness to the benefits of new technology.

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