At Family Doctors LLC, a family medicine practice in Swampscott, Mass., some patients are happy to share data they've collected from their personal trackers. Jeff W. Phillips, MD, a family physician with the practice, is happy to have it.
So much so, Phillips reaches out to other patients to see if they have data to share and counsels on how wearable technology could be beneficial to their healthcare. If he sees a patient using such a device, he'll ask them about it and how many daily steps they walk. "It gives us a common frame of reference which is helpful in counseling patients in lifestyle changes," he says.
Phillips sometimes advises patients suffering obesity, back pain and other common chronic diseases reliant on exercise and healthy habits to consider using trackers, too. He'll have them follow up with him in two to four weeks to review the information. "At the very least, the tracker serves as an educational tool, showing the patient just how little (or how much) they move," he says.
The trackers, he says, gives him and the patient the kind of accurate view of activity that can really be helpful.
"We spend time counseling patients about these things, but this is based entirely on what patients tell us. Studies have shown that patients tend to over-report exercise, and under-report calories consumed, alcohol use, etc.," he says. "On the other hand, wearable activity data is objective, and gives us valuable information as to what people are actually doing. Assuming that the accuracy is reasonable (and studies have shown that it is, at least for step counts), this is valuable information that we can use in our counseling." Demand for wearables is huge among consumers. According to the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker, 102.4 million devices shipped by vendors in 2016. That represented 25 percent growth from the prior year's figures. Meanwhile, market research firm eMarketer calculates that nearly 40 million U.S. adults use an Internet-connected wearable device at least once a month.
Physicians are less enthusiastic about the technology than their patients. According to the 2017 Physicians Practice Technology Survey, only 5 percent of respondents say they use technology that monitors aspects of their patients' health status.
Despite the medical community's low adoption rate, researchers say wearables can help physicians and their patients improve outcomes by generating reliable information that can be used to better address myriad health concerns. This includes tracking measures around chronic conditions to disruptive sleep habits.
Contrarily, health IT experts also say the medical community and patients themselves are asking for better technology tools in order to make wearables more useful in clinical settings. As it stands now, experts report that some patients say they find wearables either too expensive or sharing data with clinicians too cumbersome. Meanwhile, physicians say they, too, struggle with sharing data and making sense of it.
"As a result, a lot of the consumer wearables are living outside the sphere of healthcare," says Dan Ledger, founder of Path Collaborative, a Boston-based advisory, research and consulting firm whose work includes connected health and wearable technology. "Doctors might say, 'You should get a Fitbit,' and that's where the conversations end. They don't say, 'Bring me the data.'"