I view medicine as a team effort. Doctors, nurses, technicians, and patients work together to promote and improve health. Recently some new members have joined the team: My patients’ Fitbits, phones, and watches.
For years, the pessimists out there have predicted that wearable technology would lead to mass hysteria. Patients would misdiagnose themselves as having heart attacks and strokes and fill the ER with blaring watch alarms but no actual symptoms.
I’m both an optimist and an early adopter. Wearable – even tattooable – technology, I have believed, is not only empowering for patients; it can be helpful to doctors.
I’ve had patients who we believed were experiencing atrial fibrillation (AFib) – an irregular heartbeat that can result in blood clots, strokes and heart attacks. It is common, dangerous and often difficult to detect.
There are many different monitoring options, but with the ECG app for the Apple Watch Series 4, my patients have been able to easily monitor elusive irregularities through this FDA-cleared electrocardiogram right on their wrist.
The significance of catching atrial fibrillation early can’t be overstated. A condition that leads to strokes, heart attacks and 130,000 deaths per year can now be monitored by a person’s watch. The implications for healthcare – and for giving patients more agency in their own wellness – is enormous.
The primary criticism of fitness tracking devices is that they are unreliable and offer incomplete data. But I believe patients understand the limitations of these tools, and I also believe these devices are getting better. I liken wearable trackers to home security cameras: cameras that detect motion are far more likely to capture actual cats than cat burglars, but they are still a good and useful tool.
Similarly, patients are smart enough to know that every flutter in their chest doesn’t warrant a trip to the ER. But if a wearable device offers a warning while a patient experiences the vague and sometimes difficult to assess symptoms of heart attack (sweating, dizziness, arm pain), the device just might point to legitimate trouble – and even save the patient’s life.
The “smarter” our smartwatches, phones, and fitness trackers get, the more informed doctors will be when making diagnoses and wellness plans. More importantly, the more educated patients become through these apps and devices, the more proactive they will be about their health.
The future always looks scary to pessimists, and yes, wearable technology might be misused or misunderstood. But it will more likely than not result in real and reliable data that physicians and patients can use to make informed health care decisions together.
Medicine is a group effort. And I welcome these new, wearable devices to the team.
Subbarao Myla is a cardiologist and director of cardiac catheterization labs, Jeffrey M. Carlton Heart & Vascular Institute, Hoag.
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