Is Fitness Data not Fit for the Purpose of Use?

Nick Bilton recently blogged about the suspect quality of fitness data provided by wearable fitness-tracker devices, reporting “the reality is that many devices claiming to monitor fitness and health probably over-promise and under-deliver.”

While intended to record data about such things as how many steps you have taken, how many calories you have burned, and how many hours of restful sleep you get, many of these devices, judging by Bilton’s personal experience, are often inaccurate.

Their inaccuracies are not deterring their sales, however. Bilton cited market research that reported more than 17 million wearable devices, including smart watches and fitness bands, are expected to be sold in 2014 alone, and estimating 23 million by 2015 and over 45 million by 2017.

Right now these devices may be just a fitness fad, but Fred O’Connor recently blogged about how in the future wearable devices could be used by doctors to remotely monitor patients with chronic conditions. While the first generation of wearable devices have a somewhat limited (and dubious as Bilton pointed out) use from a health perspective, O’Connor reported that “physicians would welcome a new generation of scientifically valid wearables, since the high volume of data generated by such devices may lead to new ways of identifying disease symptoms, measuring wellness, and discovering nontraditional vital signs.”

Tero Kuittinen recently blogged about how Apple, with its much-anticipated wearable device known as the iWatch, might be looking to include functionality for monitoring respiratory function, heart rate, body temperature, and blood chemistry, noting how “this could turn the iWatch into a far more medical device than most industry observers have earlier anticipated. Could consumers be granted cheaper insurance premiums if they agree to wear iWatches, which could help speed up heart attack response, blunt the damage from diabetes, and even predict coming health crisis like strokes? Could the insurance premiums be tied into goals for lower blood sugar spikes, blood pressure maintenance, and exercise requirements?”

Of course the evolution of fitness-tracker devices into health-tracker devices rightfully raises the blood pressure of data privacy advocates. While compliance with government regulation like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States is a major concern, the widespread adoption of wearable devices also wears the weight of other obstacles.

“As keen as some doctors are on wearable devices, however,” O’Connor noted, “the health care system isn’t ready to incorporate the technology. Care providers are focused on implementing and learning electronic-health-record (EHR) software, which are designed around storing data generated from a patient visit, not information from a wearable device.”

O’Connor also delved into the financial question of whether users of health-tracker devices should be compensated for contributing their personal health information. After all, while the widespread data collection made possible by wearable devices could help the medical community make breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, it will also make a lot of money for not only the manufacturers of the devices but also the information technology vendors that support the collection, storage, and analysis of all that data. Marketplace competition might also slow the adoption of necessary data standards.

Whether it comes from an iWatch or other wearable devices, as we watch and see if fitness data proves fit for the purpose of its many potential uses, we should keep a close eye on not only data accuracy, but also data privacy. As wearable devices watch our health and fitness, who watches the watchers, and what they do with our data, is a question fit for our healthy skepticism.

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