Apple and Fitbit emerge as the first responders to healthcare


In a couple of years, your wearables will monitor your blood pressure. And within a few years after that, they’ll be able to keep tabs on your blood sugar. But they probably won’t share any measure with you.

Of course, those two metrics are very important. Half of all adults in the country have high blood pressure, and more than 500,000 Americans die each year. One in three people has prediabetes or diabetes, which is the seventh leading cause of death.

But after bombarding us with constant streams of phase counts, hours of sleep and heart rate measurements, wearable manufacturers are realizing that with less data we can put together a more useful, compelling look at our health. So they are offering more holistic views of our activity and how they relate to each other. For example, the impact of the steps you logged yesterday on the quality of your sleep last night.

“For me, success is not measured by whether I can give you a metric,” Eric Friedman, co-founder and CTO of Fitbit, told me. “Whether I can help you stay healthy.”

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In fact. And adding regular blood pressure and glucose readings into the mix has the potential to take those big-picture views to the next level, giving us a better understanding of how seemingly unrelated activities correlate. For example, how to stay awake late on a Saturday night or drink extra coffee on a Sunday afternoon can affect your ability to cope with an unexpectedly stressful work assignment on a Monday morning. This can help you choose the best time to fly across time zones to make a great presentation.

All without sharing a single reading.

Of course, Apple Watch, Fitbit, Aura Rings and other wearables will not look the other way if you see your blood pressure or blood sugar rising unexpectedly. In such cases, you will receive an alert to record an old school list or finger-prick reading and take it to your doctor.

“I think this idea of ​​relative change – the trend lines on the headlines – is very helpful,” said Harpreet Singh Rai, CEO of Aura. “They act as early warning lights on your body, like the check engine in your car.”

Check engine light

Wearable manufacturers have already begun to adopt this emerging “check engine” model. One of the best examples is the Apple Watch’s atrial defibrillation-detection algorithm, launched three years ago on the Apple Watch 4. When the Apple Watch detects possible heartbeat irregularities, it does not tell you that you may have an A-Fib. Instead, it forces you to take a reading on its built-in, FDA-approved ECG and show it to your doctor.

Unlike the ECG, you won’t see many wearable manufacturers building cuffs and glucometers into smartwatches. But given the role of consumer-class devices in health care, this emerging approach is gaining acceptance because it takes advantage of personal wellness equipment — there are always advantages to crossing any regulatory lines.

Wearable items get blood pressure – and, one day, glucose – by monitoring the blood flow factors using LEDs, sensors and AI. So they don’t actually take measurements like cuffs and glucometers. Currently, those methods for delivering medical grade measurements are not approved by the FDA.

Some insiders expect the FDA to approve consumer-grade wearables for blood pressure readings by 2023. But some believe that healthcare providers and the FDA should be able to produce wearable glucose estimates with the precision required.

A fund of insight

But this does not stop the industry from finding new insights from the relative changes in blood pressure and glucose.

“Nobody has really seen these metrics for healthy people before,” said Fitbit’s Friedman. “Yes, there is an angle of blood pressure. But, what are all the other things we can see and do from it? So instead of giving you another metric, how do we show you something interesting about your health?

Exactly. This is what we really want from our wearables.

Columnist Mike Phoebus is president and chief analyst, market research and consulting firm of PhoebusTech in Scottsdale, Arizona. Reach them at mikef@feibustech.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeFeibus.

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