Wearable devices have done more than just improve how we exercise. Turns out they are improving medical research as well. That nifty smartwatch you got for your birthday could be helping researchers and doctors improve your healthcare. The devices are also improving inclusivity. Here’s how a landmark study based on wearable health devices data could alter healthcare in the future.
Disparities in Research
The sad truth is that until fairly recently whole categories of potential subjects were excluded from medical research and clinical trials. Instead, most studies documented results in subjects who were often younger, white males. Women, people of color, and seniors were often left out of the equation. Even recently, an examination of clinical trials by the Food and Drug Administration found that of the nearly 300,000 participants worldwide, 76% were White, 11% were Asian, and 7% were Black. This is radically different from what a truly representative sample would look like. In many studies, complete racial or ethnic information was unavailable.
The problem with this disparity should be obvious. We’re all different. An older woman may react differently to a drug than a younger man. Some diseases and conditions are more prevalent among certain groups such as the way sickle cell disease disproportionately affects Black people. In one instance, a common chemotherapeutic drug was far more likely to harm African Americans than Whites, but because of racial disparities during the testing phase this potential harm wasn’t discovered until it was on the market. The COVID-19 pandemic is another example of this as one study from 2020 demonstrated that despite making up just 13% of the population, Blacks comprised 34% of overall deaths from the virus.
Wearable devices could improve representation in medical studies and clinical trials. The evidence comes from a Michigan Predictive Activity & Clinical Trajectories in Health (MIPACT) prospective observational study, which enrolled nearly 7,000 participants from the Ann Arbor area. All owned a relatively recent iPhone; they were provided with an Apple Watch Series 3 or 4, an Omron Evolv Wireless Blood Pressure Monitor, and the MyDataHelps study smartphone application. Each was asked to wear the watch for at least 12 hours per day as they went about normal activities. They also needed to take regular measurements of their blood pressure and breathing.
From the start, the study was more inclusive than many older studies with nearly 20% of participants over age 65, while some 17% were Black and 17% were Asian. Over 25% self-reported symptoms of depression while one-third had high blood pressure and ten percent were diabetic. Yet besides its inclusivity, the vast amount of data collected by the study could help health care providers and their patients.
Although data-transmitting smart watches are a 21st century development, wearable biological sensors date back to the development of the pacemaker in the late 1950s. Today’s biosensors include a wide variety of jewelry like watches, rings and bracelets along with clothing, bandages, and even contact lenses. All easily attach to someone’s body and transmit data. As tech gets smaller, and large amounts of data are more easily transmitted, the potential benefits for these devices increases exponentially. This was the objective of the study –– to see the sort of things medical researchers could learn when, instead of collecting data at a set time, they were able to harvest huge quantities of it at least 12 hours a day.
In the Michigan study, so far over one million blood pressure and more than 200 million heart rate measurements have been collected. Researchers learned that seniors had far lower resting and walking heart rates than people under age 65. Women’s heart rates were on average three beats faster per minute than men’s. Black subjects had the highest resting heart rate; Whites had the lowest. The study also showed differences in activity levels based on race and ethnic backgrounds.
Although data from the first three months of the three-year study has been analyzed, far more will be examined in the future. Using a smartwatch instead of standard data collection is like the difference between taking a single snapshot and watching a motion picture composed of thousands of photographs. Using data from the study, doctors could better assess a patient’s heart attack or stroke risk based on predictive behavior. Besides offering insights into the health of participants, the study may encourage people concerned about their health to wear smartwatches. By sending data to their doctor or a collection center, they could be warned before a catastrophic event occurs.
- Wearable device signals and home blood pressure data across age, sex, race, ethnicity, and clinical phenotypes in the Michigan Predictive Activity & Clinical Trajectories in Health (MIPACT) study: a prospective, community-based observational study – The Lancet Digital Health
- 2015-2019 Drug Trials Snapshots Summary Report
- Data & Statistics on Sickle Cell Disease | CDC
- Improving diversity in medical research | Nature Reviews Disease Primers
- IJERPH | Free Full-Text | Black–White Risk Differentials in COVID-19 (SARS-COV2) Transmission, Mortality and Case Fatality in the United States: Translational Epidemiologic Perspective and Challenges
- Unprecedented look at the health status of a diverse patient population — ScienceDaily
- Evolution of Wearable Devices with Real-Time Disease Monitoring for Personalized Healthcare
John Bankston is a published author of over 150 nonfiction books for children and young adults including biographies of Jonas Salk, Gerhard Domak, and Frederick Banting.