With the explosion of smartphones and other mobile devices, it seems like there is a gadget or app for just about everything, including your health.
Digital devices that you can wear—also called “wearables” or “wearable devices”—are helping people track their health and take steps to improve it. But you should know that wearable technology can’t replace your health care team.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates medical devices for safety and effectiveness. Although some mobile medical apps and accessories are approved by the FDA as medical devices, most are not. In the future, this technology may help us improve care and outcomes for people with heart disease, but more research is needed. To help identify the best ways to use the technology, wearables are being tested in clinical trials.
Learn more about these devices and what they can do today.
What Are Wearables?
Wearables, also called wearable devices, are digital devices that you can wear. They include:
- Activity trackers
- Digital or mobile health devices to keep an eye on blood pressure, blood sugar, heart rate and rhythm
For example, these devices can be worn on your wrist or as a patch on your chest or stomach. They often include tiny sensors that collect and then sync information to your smartphone or tablet. You can track how active you’ve been from day to day. You can also record calories burned, your sleep habits, breathing or heart rate.
Wearables are also playing a role in managing diseases such as diabetes and atrial fibrillation.
Diabetes: One FDA-approved wearable helps people manage diabetes. A sensor placed just under the skin allows blood sugar levels to be checked round-the-clock. The user gets an alert if their blood sugar level is too high or too low. This means people with diabetes no longer need to prick their fingers to check blood sugar levels. Such close monitoring may ultimately help to prevent complications, such as problems with the eyes, kidneys or nerves, as well as stroke or heart disease. But further study is needed.
Atrial Fibrillation: Some smartwatches record the electrical activity of the heart, called an electrocardiogram or ECG, and can notify the wearer of an abnormal heart rhythm or heartbeat. The ones that have been FDA-approved are helpful for people with atrial fibrillation. But experts say people who use mobile ECGs should check results with their health care team. An abnormal reading might turn out to be a false alarm.
What Wearables Can Do
Wearables are tools that can help you:
- Become more active and monitor your own health
- Track certain health habits and measures (for example, blood pressure, heart rate, activity levels)
- Set health your own wellness goals
Overall, they can assist with your care and teach you more about your health and patterns of health behaviors.
Depending on the digital device or health app that is used, data may be collected in any of the following ways:
- At random
- When symptoms are detected
- All the time
What Wearables Can’t Do
But wearables have limitations. They don’t replace your health care team, any tests ordered by them or follow-up visits.
You also should not rely on wearable technology to replace any tests you take during a health visit. For example, the electrocardiogram or Holter monitor that is offered through your doctor’s office are very important in your care.
Bottom line: Any digital health device or mobile app should be used in partnership with your health care team.
“Wearables are changing the way many people think about their health. It’s really the power of technology in people’s hands—for example, giving them access to an ECG in their pocket or on their wrist. But these are not meant to replace the devices in clinic or tests that their health care provider needs to manage their condition.”
How to Use Wearables
Wearables and health apps are not for everyone. Popular devices don’t appeal to all whether it’s because of personal preference, privacy concerns, or cost. But what are good ways to start using a wearable device?
In one scenario, your health care professional might suggest it to help you set medication reminders or boost your activity level by tracking the number of steps you take each day. It might also help you measure and report your blood sugar levels or blood pressure. In another scenario, if you’re interested in wearable technology you might bring it up with your care team. Together you can decide how it might help support your health.
Wearables help people:
- Monitor health measures such as blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and heart rhythm
- Track and report symptoms (one day some wearables may be used to talk remotely with a health care professional)
- Collect and track health data and see trends over time (for example, sleep and fitness patterns, lab results)
- Set health goals
- Self-motivate and feel more accountable—for example, to be more active, take more steps each day
- Set reminders, such as a daily alarm, to take a medicine
These technologies allow people to collect data in between health visits. Many devices can display real-time readings on your phone or smartwatch and send you alerts such as how long you slept or texts to urge you to exercise, which can be motivating.
It seems many people are using the information from these devices. A survey by the Pew Research Center found that of people who live with a chronic medical condition and use some sort of app or technology to track their symptoms, about half say that doing so has:
- Changed how they approach their care
- Led them to ask their doctor new questions or seek a second opinion
In addition, 4 out of 10 people surveyed say it has affected a health care decision, according to the Pew Research Center.
In the future, digital technologies may one day allow people to monitor themselves continuously and have this data as part of their electronic health record. The information might then be used in partnership with health care professionals to tailor a health plan suitable for an individual.
Using health devices also has the potential to help detect acute and chronic conditions earlier and improve decision-making. The overall goal is to promote health and wellness.
“The future is here. There is real potential for wearables to improve cardiovascular care outside of the doctor’s office. Nonetheless, we need to know how accurate the data is, how we can access it—or share it with the patients’ permission—and what is needed to integrate and optimize this technology into patient care.
Proceed With the Right Information
There is great potential for wearables to improve how we care for heart diseases, but we are still in early days. Keep a few things in mind when using wearables and digital health devices:
The technology has grown faster than most health care professionals’ knowledge of them. So be sure to speak to your doctor and nurse about the devices you use. Some are FDA approved, but the majority are not. Knowing the difference between the two is important.
More research is needed to really understand which wearables work and how best to use them. There is also limited data about whether their use actually improves care or outcomes.
We don’t yet know the accuracy of most wearable health technologies and some may result in false readings.
Experts say these tools aren’t 100% accurate. That means an if an app detects an abnormal heart rhythm and triggers an alert, it might not actually be true. These false positives might lead to unneeded testing. Partner with your health care team to interpret these measurements in the best way possible.
It’s also important to understand the privacy policies and how secure your information will be. So, stay informed and ask questions.