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Health trackers: What they mean for the future of medicine... and your life

Eddie Codel

Right now, wearable health technology is all the rage, with many people tracking things like their steps, activity levels and body movements. But soon these devices could used not just for fitness but as medical tools that could change how illnesses are diagnosed and treated.

This week on “Take Care,” Dr. Michael Blum talks about wearable health technology. Blum is a cardiologist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and heads up the university’s Center for Digital Health Innovation as associate vice chancellor for informatics.

Wearable health technology is not limited to fitness trackers, such as the wristbands that monitor caloric intake or distance walked. But these devices are the introduction to the market of this kind of technology. But future generations of these trackers will be more complex.

“Those wearables are going to track a variety of clinical parameters,” Blum says.

The next generations of wearables will monitor things like heart rate, blood pressure, stress levels and oxygen saturation in the blood.  

According to Blum, the technology will allow an increase in measuring data like heart rhythm, which will give medical professionals more information, more quickly, and gather it in a way that's easier for the patient.

“Wearables will require us as clinicians and researchers to collect whole new set of data on people who are healthy individuals and some who have specific diseases to collect a new massive amount of data on them and understand what that new streaming data means and how it’s going to allow us to take much better care of those patients,” Blum says.

The wearables will be both consumer-based and prescribed. So consumers will still be able to buy some trackers themselves, while doctors will recommend other, more sophisticated technology to track medical issues.

“We’re definitely going to see consumer-based heart rate tracking devices -- that will definitely come out on the consumer side and you’ll be able to buy them at Best Buy just like you do with the fitness trackers now,” Blum says.

Blum says there are much more sophisticated devices that will soon be released that have gone through FDA approval and will allow heart rate to be monitored remotely and in real time by medical personnel.

A device like that will reduce the usage of Holter monitors, a rather large heart rate tracker that patients wear for, oftentimes, 72 hours and is attached to the chest with adhesive electrodes.

Blum says these new devices will be much less cumbersome, with patches the size of Band-Aids on their chest.

“They can, not only, monitor your heart rate and heart rhythm the entire time you’re wearing it 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,” Blum says.

With current devices it is only possible to report back data manually and through a telephone.

“That’s going to really dramatically change the experience for the patients,” Blum says. “The ability to get that data much more quickly is, I believe, going to give us much more confidence as clinicians that we can discharge patients from the hospital and safely be monitoring what’s going on with them.”