San Diego, August 3, 2016 — It’s not very often that a medical researcher is quoted on BuzzFeed, the online news service, but that’s what happened in a recent article posted by BuzzFeed news reporter Stephanie M. Lee. What's more, she quotes two current or former members of the Qualcomm Institute's Center for Wireless and Population Health Systems (CWPHS) on the growing use of Fitbit activity trackers in health and medical research.
In a story about how scientists are using Fitbit devices, BuzzFeed reported that researchers have conducted more than 200 studies based on more than two billion minutes of Fitbit data. The Fitbit data is consistent with numbers provided by Fitabase, a platform that collects the devices’ data on behalf of scientists, who may use Fitbits as a better approach than self-reporting in order to get a more accurate tally of a patient's everyday physical activity.
For insight, BuzzFeed turned to Dr. Kevin Patrick, a professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at UC San Diego and director of CWPHS in the Qualcomm Institute (QI), also at UC San Diego. “The way we’d normally have to ask [for health information] is, you see people in the clinic every week or couple of weeks, [and] you ask them how they were,” explained Patrick, whose research center focuses on wireless-based, health-behavior management. “When a wearable device like this simply just captures the number of steps they’re taking in a given day, that’s a pretty important parameter.”
BuzzFeed also quotes former CWPHS web and social media developer Aaron Coleman, who left QI to become Founder and CEO of Fitabase, the platform serving the science community. “Fitbit’s consumer-friendly technology provides our customers with an accurate, meaningful way to capture 24/7, real-time data and design innovative study protocols in ways not possible before,” said Coleman in a statement.
According to Coleman, “Fitabase is a data analytics platform for consumer devices. We’re helping researchers observe behavior and capture data using the Fitbit line of devices.”
There is growing evidence that Fitbit devices may help patients adhere to a doctor-prescribed exercise plan. A 2015 study by researchers from UC San Diego, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine (until recently edited by UC San Diego’s Patrick), found that people will reliably wear a Fitbit for research purposes. The study reported that women enrolled in a four-month fitness plan largely opted to wear their Fitbit trackers every day as prescribed (more specifically, 95 percent of the days in the study period).
The 200 studies to date using Fitbit are not all published in scientific journals yet, but meanwhile, Fitbit told BuzzFeed that more studies are in the works. “Researchers from Northwestern University and UC San Francisco want to monitor patient activity before and after spine surgeries to understand how quickly they recover,” according to the online news service. “Separately, UCSF is also exploring if physical activity can reduce patients’ likelihood of becoming hospitalized before getting a liver transplant. And an Arizona State University researcher is using Fitbit data in part to see if getting customized wellness tips will nudge people to adopt healthy habits.”
At UC San Diego, the Qualcomm Institute’s Kevin Patrick added that he plans to use Fitbit devices in four to five upcoming studies, including one that will track activity levels in cancer patients.
Indeed, Fitbit itself appears to be targeting eventual entry into the medical arena in a more systematic way, but the BuzzFeed report noted that such technologies would take Fitbit out of the purely consumer electronics realm to a research area requiring Food and Drug Administration oversight and regulation. As Fitbit CEO James Park explained in April to Bloomberg News: “We think five to 10 years down the line, the power of these devices to help consumers, health-care providers, the whole health-care ecosystem track and give diagnoses to people — I think it’s incredibly tantalizing.”
Doug Ramsey, (858) 822-5825, firstname.lastname@example.org