What a Doctor Really Thinks about Trendy Wearables That Track Health Data

The first time I experienced Apple Watch’s ECG’s function in action was during a house call. A patient who had a non heart-related issue offered to show me how the app works. She found it cool that her watch could measure her heart rhythm.

By the team at Speedoc,
January 10, 2020

The first time I experienced Apple Watch’s ECG’s function in action was during a house call. A patient who had a non heart-related issue offered to show me how the app works. She found it cool that her watch could measure her heart rhythm. As a medical professional, I was also impressed that a consumer device could potentially help detect atrial fibrillation (AFib), which is linked to an increased risk of heart failure or stroke.

With cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death globally, it is not surprising that many people are interested in technology that helps to monitor their heart. This is a trend that is likely to remain popular in the foreseeable future as portable or home-based ECGs and biosensors in consumer wearables get more commonplace.

However, while I am heartened by any new technology that can empower people to take charge of their health, it is important for consumers to understand the limits of their wearables. First and foremost, the Apple Watch is not a substitute for a doctor’s consultation or for the use of medical grade equipment. This is something that Apple emphasizes too.

The Apple Watch uses a 1-lead ECG. In comparison, hospitals and clinics use 12-lead ECGs to capture 12 different views of your heart for an accurate diagnosis. This gold standard 12-lead ECG is also what Speedoc brings with us for our house calls for use when necessary.

That said, if you have symptoms like pain, numbness or weakness in the chest and other suspected heart conditions, please do not call Speedoc. In such time-critical situations, you should call 995 to receive immediate treatment in a hospital.

So, what can wearable devices do?

If you own an Apple Watch with the ECG function, you can use it to do a reading in the event that you experience palpitations or a skipped heartbeat. This is useful information to pass to your doctor on your next check-up. There are many other commercially available devices that can collect a wide variety of biodata such as skin temperature, blood oxygen, heart rate and physical activity. While I can’t imagine there are that many people who are willing to strap on multiple devices on a daily basis to take these measurements regularly, it is interesting to consider the implications that these accessible biosensors may have on the healthcare system.

In one interesting case, a Stanford researcher who was wearing biosensors for a study actually managed to use these recordings to detect abnormalities that led to an early diagnosis for Lyme disease.

This opens a whole new world of possibilities where such devices are able to fulfill one part of the jigsaw that is the healthcare system. With proper personalization and software reconciliation, biosensors may be able to take over the job of conducting triage protocols for certain diseases like pneumonia which have clear scoring systems. This would allow bedbound patients to be monitored efficiently without the need for frequent checks by a caregiver.

In this scenario, wearables may enable a significant shift towards offering affordable health management and care for all. However, this will require a move towards building wearable biosensors that are medical grade and can collect data such as blood pressure and oxygen levels.

Additionally, biosensor technology (and its quantitative data) will not be able to replace are doctors, who are needed to exercise qualitative judgment and medical opinions. In the case of the Stanford researcher, what was required was a health expert to make sense of the readings he had obtained to arrive at a diagnosis.

At this point in time, consumer tech is not yet medical grade although I believe it will eventually catch up. Still this is a good foundation and starting point for this paradigm shift. When this happens, this will likely reduce healthcare spend as a whole. As it is, the medical industry is already trending towards tech-enabled healthcare to solve existing problems. For instance, Speedoc is an end-to-end tech-enabled system that provides the community with fuss free access to house call doctor services as well as nurses and ambulances on demand. Up next, we are working on using data and other forms of bioinformatics to address issues like disease intervention and outbreak prediction.

I am confident that with the right use of technology, the industry will be able come together to put the “care” back into healthcare.

This post was written by Dr. Shravan Verma, MD, Founder & CEO of Speedoc.