Your FitBit might just save your life — and your residents'

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Emily Mongan
Emily Mongan

About a year ago, I decided to jump on the wearable fitness tracker bandwagon. I chose a lower-cost model, one that came without frills like a heart rate monitor but that looked pretty cute and not too much like a fitness tracker.

My “honeymoon” phase with this little gadget was fantastic. It would buzz to remind me to walk around, or take medication if I was on it. I'd feel a sense of accomplishment when I hit step goals. Even just wearing it around served as a shiny reminder to try and be a little bit healthier that day.

Eventually that phase wore off. The tracker's rubber band started cracking (it looks a lot less cute cobbled together with superglue), and I started working out at a boxing gym where my steps didn't count as much.

But recent research from the Stanford University School of Medicine might just serve as the incentive I need to jump back on the wearable bandwagon.

A research team collected medical information — nearly 2 billion measurements — from 60 people in an effort to determine their “baseline” health levels. The trackers collected information such as heart rate, skin temperature, sleep, activity and weight.

By figuring out each subject's baseline health, the researchers figured the trackers could then be used to identify changes in those baseline levels. Those changes could be due to completely non-threatening reasons, such as a dip in blood oxygen levels during airplane flights. But the team behind the study, published online in PLOS Biology, predict the trackers could let users know when a change in their health levels means something more.

For example, lead author Michael Snyder, Ph.D., was wearing seven different biosensors when he noted changes in his heart rate and oxygen levels during a flight. Those levels didn't return to normal upon landing, and Snyder developed a fever and other symptoms soon after. This came just a few weeks after Snyder spent time in rural Massachusetts, so his immediate fear was that he had been bitten by a tick, leading to the Lyme disease-like symptoms.

Snyder visited a doctor while traveling, and found that his hypothesis was right. He had been infected with a microorganism linked to Lyme, something his wearable health trackers picked up on before he even felt sick.

“Wearables helped make the initial diagnosis,” Snyder said in a news release on the study.

Beyond picking up evidence of infections, Snyder and his team predict the devices could help identify signs of insulin resistance, a warning sign of type 2 diabetes. The best of the study, in my opinion, is that Snyder's research didn't require a fancy, lab-built tracker — all of the subjects were wearing trackers and sensors that are commercially available. Snyder predicts a future where people will wear more sensors than those currently used to track our cars' “health.”

That future may still be a ways off, but it offers interesting possibilities to the healthcare industry. Perhaps residents will be given a specialized wearable tracker upon admission, tweaked to focus on health measures rather than activity alone, which will be used to gather their baseline health information. That wearable might wirelessly alert nursing staff to changes in those baselines, and allow workers to call a physician to examine the resident before they even begin feeling ill.

Catching an infection or condition before it fully forms may seem like science fiction. But imagine the healthcare costs it could save, or the residents kept healthy because a fellow resident's illness was spotted long before it had a chance to spread. That's a promising future, all thanks to a little gadget that's already available in stores.

Follow Emily Mongan @emmongan.


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Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.