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Health

Soon your fitness tracker may come with a prescription

With sales through the roof and nearly immediate feedback, fitness trackers have dominated the health and wellness market for some time now. Step by step, calorie by calorie, fitness trackers are just the tip of the wearable health technology iceberg.

This week on "Take Care," hosts Lorraine Rapp and Linda Lowen speak to Dr. Michael Blum about the wearable health technology of today and the future. Blum is a cardiologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and heads up the Center for Digital Health Innovation at the university.

Lorraine Rapp: When we talk about wearable technology, as it relates to the medical field, what are we talking about specifically?

Dr. Michael Blum: Most people see wearables right now as fitness trackers -- the wristbands that you see people wearing all over the place. Those are kind of the introduction to the wearables market. What we’re going to see are much more clinical devices within the next year or so. And those wearables are going to track a variety of clinical parameters. So right now, the wearables are tracking activity or steps, things like that. The next generation of wearables are going to start tracking things like heart rate, blood pressure. They can track temperature, stress levels, oxygen saturation in the blood. So, much more clinical parameters that will allow them to have much more meaning in the clinical environment.

Linda Lowen: Are these devices going to be marketed directly to consumers or is this going to be considered a medical device, which then is prescribed by the physician? 

Blum: So you’re going to see both. We’re definitely going to see consumer based heart rate tracking, heart rhythm tracking, blood pressure devices. You’ll be able to buy them at Best Buy just like you do with the fitness trackers now. But they’re much more sophisticated devices that are also coming along, some of which have already gone through FDA approval, that are going to allow us to track heart rates and heart rhythms remotely in a way we haven’t been able to do previously. For example, when a patient would be discharged from the hospital, previously, if they had an issue with a heart rhythm, many times a doctor would prescribe what’s called a halter monitor, which would be a big box they would wear for the next 72 hours to sometimes weeks. It would be attached to the patient with sticky electrodes, and they would wander around for days wearing this big box and then they would bring the box back to the clinic and it would get interpreted, [and] days later the doctor would get a report. That’s all going away. People are going to soon be wearing little patches the size of a Band-Aid that can go on their chest or sometimes they’re little earbuds that people will wear, and they can not only monitor your heart rate and heart rhythm, but they can also connect wirelessly to your cell phone, and your phone can send that data right up to a cloud. So in real time now, your providers can know exactly what’s going on. That’s going to really dramatically change the experience for the patients and, the ability to get that data much more quickly is, I believe, going to give us much more confidence as clinicians that we can charge discharge patients from the hospital and safely be monitoring what’s going on with them.

Rapp: Tell us some of the other things that are on the horizon.

Blum: Things that we can’t even imagine are coming out now. I think the first things that we’re going to see are better measurement of more traditional parameters -- heart rate, blood pressure, temperature. And, I think the next step we’re going to see as we start to get much more of this data streaming is we’ll find things that I call non-traditional vital signs. So, they’ll be signals, that aren’t the heart rate and blood pressure, that will actually tell us about the status of an individual and will start to be predictive of when they’re not doing so well. To the point where we’ll be able to manage and monitor individuals who have chronic diseases, and we’ll be able to tell when they’re very early in the progression of a disease or an acute episode of a disease. We’ll be able to tell even before the individual knows themselves.

More of this interview can be heard on "Take Care," WRVO's health and wellness show Sunday at 6:30 p.m. Support for this story comes from the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York.