Do Fitbits keep people healthy or contribute to data overload for doctors?

August 31, 2019

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A new program in Singapore aims to put a Fitbit in the hands of roughly one-fifth of the country’s 5.6 million residents as part of an experiment testing how population health data gathered from health trackers can better inform public health initiatives and generally improve health.


“This is a really good testament to our strategy and approach to behavior change in health care,” said Amy McDonough, COO of Fitbit Health Solutions. 


Here’s how it will work:

  • Singaporeans and long-term and permanent residents who enroll in the program will pay $10 a month for one year for services like workout plans in the Fitbit mobile app and receive a free Fitbit. (The “premium” program being offered to residents in Singapore was also launched to U.S. residents this week.) The company’s one-on-one health coaching services, which employ hundreds of health coaches, including registered nurses and certified diabetes educators, will also be offered next year, McDonough said. She declined to say at this time whether there will be an extra cost for the coaching service. 

  • Health care providers in Singapore will not have access to participants’ data unless they choose to share it with their physicians directly, a Fitbit spokesperson said. 

  • Singapore’s health system has long been lauded for keeping costs low and its residents healthy. It’s similar to the U.S. system in that it’s not a single-payer system and instead has a mix of public and private health spending.

“Monitoring behavior is one thing,” Pratap Khedkar, principal at consulting firm ZS, wrotethis week about the Singapore program. “Changing it is another. Is tech [plus] coaching enough to enable a population’s shift toward wellness?”


The wearable backstory: Experts have long talked up the potential value of using Apple Watches or Fitbits to track metrics like activity, nutrition, and sleep as a tool to help improve overall health and drive behavior changes. 


Researchers have been studying the use of wearables in everything from tremor detection in patients with Parkinson’s disease to measuring heart rate as a signal of mood for patients undergoing mental health treatment. Health insurers have also gotten on board. UnitedHealthcare, for example, offers Apple Watches or Fitbits for free to members who can “walk off” the cost of the devices, CNBC reported late last year. 


Apple CEO Tim Cook recently pointed to the health tools in the Apple Watch, in response to an investor question about the growth of services. “We've got lots of what I would call core technology kinds of things like augmented reality, where we're placing big bets and bet that we have a big future, in addition to the health kinds of things that may fall out of the watch,” he said.


But do wearables actually improve health outcomes? The jury is still out on whether wearables do in fact improve health or if they simply provide nice-to-have data for the health-conscious. The other big unknown is how actionable this data is for physicians. 


A sports doctor recently told USA Today that his “hypothesis is [fitness trackers] can be useful for doctors. We just haven’t figured out how to use them quite yet.” And in an op-edpiece published in IEEE last week, writer Stacey Higginbotham wrote: “We need to draw a line between digital wellness and digital medicine. The entire health care industry needs to implement rigorous standards that can help differentiate between truly therapeutic products and the digital equivalent of snake oil.”


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