Precision medicine programs can benefit from wearable usage data; however, little information has been collected on personalities and behaviors of the device users
Wearables medical devices have the potential to monitor some of the same biomarkers used in medical laboratory tests today. In addition, these mobile technologies can make it possible for clinical laboratories to monitor patients in real time, as well as allow labs to incorporate such into a patient’s historical record of lab test results.
The trend toward personalized medicine (aka, Precision Medicine) is increasing, with many payment programs based on it. Thus, monitoring and correcting activities that cause chronic disease, or work against treatments, is becoming standard procedure for forward-thinking, technically proficient doctors and hospitals. But are patients onboard with all of it?
Activity Trackers for Monitoring Patient Behavior
With the popularity of activity trackers on the rise, researchers are examining their usage patterns to determine how the devices are being utilized, their target market, and ways to encourage sustained use of the gadgets.
A recent article published in Annals of Internal Medicine provided insight regarding who is using this type of wearable device, how activity trackers are being employed, and the length of time consumers will maintain their usage.
The research was spearheaded by Mitesh Patel, MD, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Health Care Management, Perelman School of Medicine and the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He believes this is the largest study of its kind to evaluate the usage of wearable fitness trackers.
“Many people are excited by the potential of using activity trackers to monitor healthy behaviors, but there is very little evidence on who is using them and whether or not use is sustained over time,” Patel stated in a Penn Medicine news release. “We found that, though use grew over time, it really varied depending on individual characteristics like age and income. We also found that once someone started using an activity tracker, sustained use at six months was high at 80%.”
Gaming the Study Improves Usage of Test Devices
To perform the study, 4.4 million members of a national wellness program were invited to take part in data collection. Approximately 55,000 of those individuals actually participated in the study, which involved downloading an app to record pertinent information. Researchers tracked and interpreted the data during a two-year period in 2014 and 2015.
The information analyzed included:
- When participants initially activated their tracker;
- How often the device was utilized;
- The average number of steps taken per day; and,
- Sociodemographic characteristics.
The results of the study were not entirely unexpected, but there were surprises:
- 80% of the people who initially activated the devices were still using them after six months;
- Only 0.2% of the invited individuals used the devices in the first year;
- However, that number increased to 1.2% during the second year.
The usage of wearable activity trackers was nearly double among younger people than it was for older individuals. In addition, people from households with an annual income of less than $50,000 used the gadgets at lower rates than those at higher income levels.
A mere 0.1% of the potential participants were over 65-years old. However, 90% of individuals in this age group were still using the devices six months after initial activation.
The authors of the study stated that adding game elements, such as points, levels, badges and financial incentives may have played a role in the sustained use of the activity trackers.
“Gamification and financial incentives are commonly used within wellness programs, but their impact has not been well studied,” Patel stated in the news release. “Our findings provide initial evidence suggesting that these types of engagement strategies may show promise for keeping sustained use high. However, more studies are needed to determine the best way to combine these types of engagement strategies with activity trackers to improve health outcomes.”
Most Commonly Used Mobile Activity Tracking Devices
There were 60 different types of wearable activity trackers that could be used by participants for the study. Seventy-six percent of those participants elected to use the FitBit activity tracker. This mobile healthcare device is worn on the wrist like a watch. It monitors activity, exercise, food, weight, and sleep to provide consumers with real-time data about their activities.
The data collected by the device is sent automatically and wirelessly to the user’s phone or computer. Individuals then can use the FitBit dashboard to view their progress through online charts and graphs. The dashboard also offers progress notifications to the consumer and gives achievement badges when established goals have been reached.
The second most common activity trackers used were Apple devices, such as Apple Watches, which were chosen by 9% of the participants.
Biometric data on patients’ behavior and activities that is collected and transmitted from mobile devices has swiftly become critical data doctors use in precision medicine diagnoses and treatments. Clinical laboratories will likely be including biomarker data taken by these devices in their testing and procedures in the future. The only question is how quickly the data generated by such devices becomes acceptable to add to a patient’s permanent health record.