Wrist-worn heart rate tracking devices from companies like Fitbit are big business, and not just with athletes. According to recent estimates, there are over 100 medical studies in the United States alone that involve Fitbit devices, with several more that use bands from competing companies.
The intended benefit of using these devices in studies is that they should allow researchers to collect quantitative data about their patients’ health, negating the need to use unreliable self-reported information. Research from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, though, suggests that Fitbit’s continuous heart rate tracking “do[es] not accurately measure a user’s heart rate,” which calls the use of these devices into question.
This has led to a class-action lawsuit against Fitbit, and some concern in the medical community about the use of consumer fitness trackers in medical studies.
If you’re embarking on a clinical research career, here are a couple of things you should know about what the Fitbit Lawsuit means for fitness trackers in research.
The Lawsuit Reminds Professionals With Clinical Research Training to Work for Better Data
Even though this new information about Fitbit is worrying, researchers are quick to point out that it doesn’t mean fitness trackers should be dismissed altogether. Instead, many advocate for regulating fitness trackers and placing them under rigorous standards so that researchers can use these tools knowing that the data they provide is both accurate and reliable.
Even before these devices become regulated, it might still be possible for professionals working in clinical research careers to use them in their studies. By “modelling for errors”—collecting data from more than one device to see how they compare—researchers might be able to pinpoint how fitness trackers differ. By accruing enough of this comparative data, researchers will be better able to see how a device’s results vary from the objective truth, which will help improve analysis.
Pros With Clinical Research Training Can Expect Better Wrist-Trackers in Future Studies
Although imperfect, even modern trackers are often seen as more accurate than asking patients to provide self-reported data. As many researchers know, sometimes patients lie when providing self-reported data. For example, they might say that they perform more exercise, or eat healthier, than they actually do. As the technology used in wrist-worn trackers develops, newer models will only get better at delivering accurate results.
What’s more, there are health trackers in development at Google—and rumoured to be in the works at Jawbone—that are meant to be used exclusively for clinical research and medical monitoring. Many experts believe that these devices will strike a balance between the greater accuracy of professional medical monitoring devices and the sleeker design of consumer-grade fitness trackers, making it easier to get study participants to wear their trackers, and for professionals with clinical research training to collect and analyze more accurate data.
Though modern tracking devices have their faults, careful analysis of their data can still prove useful to researchers. Eventually, more accurate devices will likely make it easier to analyze data, with less need to compensate for errors in the results.
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