Wearable health data monitoring – is it really useable? Implications for physicians and Parkinson’s research.

With the availability of devices that can track health information – you know, those wristbands and phone apps that measure how much exercise you’re getting or how many calories you’re eating – it’s no surprise that patients are bringing this information to their primary care physicians.

Wearable-digital-health-information industry is a fast growing market – worth between $3 billion and $5 billion (Credit Suisse) – with over 50,000 health apps, has the power to transform health care. But the information collected can be overwhelming to physicians – pages of excel sheets that includes symptoms, medication, heart rate data –  information these devices collect can be overwhelming.  And begs the question, are the data coming in digitally accurate? There are limited validation studies on these ‘low risk devices’  – meaning those not monitored by the FDA, such as FitBits and Apple Watches.

However, these devices can also put the power back into the hands of individuals, as they are able to track healthy behaviours and likely promote positive lifestyle choices.

These tools are also powerful in a research context. Especially in the context of Parkinson’s disease. I used portable monitors – things like GPS watches, accelerometers and devices that measure muscle activity – during my PhD dissertation research to examine how people with PD move about their day in the context of their own community (publications: HEREHERE HERE, and HERE). In PD, these devices have the power to represent the real fluctuations people experience in daily life, due to medications or environment – outside of the ‘sterile’ and isolated clinical appointment setting.
NPR reports on a Michael J Fox Foundation trial (here) that is looking whether an activity tracker made by Intel would be useful to track the severity of tremors. It creates a digital diary showing how tremors respond to minor changes in diet, sleep patterns or what time of day medication is taken. Parkinson’s is a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week disease. Patients and their doctors need a better way to monitor PD, and researchers need a more objective way to measure the effect of new drugs. The solution might come through the use of ‘low risk’ wearable devices, such as smart watches or apps. The data collected from these devices may highlight trends or differences among people with PD, or therapy’s effect, and may point researchers to new areas of interest in our pursuits of learning more about Parkinson’s and of developing a cure. “Data science and wearable computing hold the potential to transform our ability to capture and objectively measure patients’ actual experience of disease, with unprecedented implications for Parkinson’s drug development, diagnosis and treatment” said MJFF CEO Todd Sherer, PhD.

Bret Parker (who blogged HERE), a 46-year old lawyer from NYC is participating in this trial: “When I heard there was a trial that involved a wearable that would help me better manage my symptoms and my condition, I said to myself, ‘Well, that’s a pretty cool thing. I’ve got to try that’.

As well, Dr. Gareth Jones (my PhD supervisor) at the University of British Columbia Okanagan and Dr. Petrella from Western University have created a new app called “Health e Steps” with the intention of communicating specific health information to physicians. You can watch their video HERE.

Finally, if you are a person with Parkinson’s disease living in the Victoria BC area, there may be an upcoming opportunity to participate in a trail for a wearable device in partnership with ParkinGo. Check out their great website and get in touch if you are interested in finding out more information!

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