Consumers love the new health-monitoring features provided by smart wearables like the Apple Watch. The ability to collect EKG readings, measure blood oxygen levels, and track standard body metrics like heart rate is just a tap away. Although this is great for those who need to keep a close eye on their health, researchers fear that it may also have an adverse effect.
A new study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association found that devices like the Apple Watch could cause people to “overutilize” the healthcare system. In other words, smartwatches might not be as good at detecting real problems as we thought they were.
The thought of developing a serious heart condition is scary. After all, heart disease remains the number one cause of death worldwide. It makes sense why people would be quick to visit the doctor after their Apple Watch detects an abnormal pulse reading or heart rhythm.
Unfortunately, the wearable sensors that consumers have come to trust might not always be helpful. According to the study’s authors, only 10 percent of patients whose watch detected something wrong went on to be diagnosed with a heart condition.
Of course, this isn’t to say that the readings were wrong. Abnormal heart rhythms can come and go without signs and symptoms in many people. However, the numbers seem to show that gadgets like the Apple Watch aren’t foolproof solutions for monitoring health.
Heather Heaton, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, went through patient records from various Mayo Clinic sites. She and her team looked for mentions of the term “Apple Watch” dating back to December 2018.
The study concluded that the majority of patients who visited their doctor after getting an alert were likely false positives.
Due to this, researchers worry that the growing prevalence of smartwatches and other health-monitoring wearables could cause overutilization of the healthcare system. This is ultimately costly for hospitals and patients and also unnecessarily takes doctors’ time away from those who actually need care.
Doctors are accustomed to people coming in after reading about their symptoms online and self-diagnosing. In fact, that has been occurring more frequently as the internet becomes intertwined with every aspect of daily life.
Smartwatches are a different story though. People who wear them aren’t necessarily looking for a diagnosis. Instead, they are monitoring their health. If something pops up, they may want to get it checked.
This creates a tricky situation that toes the line between playing it safe by visiting the doctor and not overreacting to data that might be inaccurate.
Kirk Wyatt, another researcher on the study, says, “It is hard for a user to ignore an alert that they could have a serious medical condition.”
He goes on to say that gadgets like the Apple Watch “blur the line between rigorously-studied medical devices and wellness tools.”
So, while smart wearables are a good way to keep track of your overall health, it’s worth remembering that they have limitations. It’s also a good idea to not overreact to the data they collect. Heaton says, “Understanding context and the nuances of illness is important and at this point cannot be fully understood purely by a wearable medical device.”