Fitbit is already thinking about life beyond helping you burn calories. While we are not saying it's giving up on fitness trackers or smartwatches, it does see a future in monitoring serious health conditions. Whether that takes the form of new devices or those features are plugged into its existing hardware, the company is not sure, but Fitbit wants to make it happen.
CEO James Park has already confirmed that the company is working on devices to detect sleep apnea, a sleep disorder that can lead to an increased risk in heart failure, obesity and can even cause a stroke. Now we know that it wants to explore how it can take better care of your heart as well. Specifically, it's looking at how to detect atrial fibrillation.
It sounds like Fitbit is in the early stages of exploring this area, but its intentions to help users closely monitor heart health is no doubt going to be huge challenge. We've tried to get to grips exactly what atrial fibrillation is, why Fitbit is trying to tackle it and find out about the wearables that are already trying to make a difference.
What is atrial fibrillation?
According to the American Heart Association, atrial fibrillation refers to having a quivering or irregular heartbeat (also known as arrhythmia). When your heart beats normally, it should contract and relax. Atrial fibrillation occurs when erratic or extra electrical signals impact on the heart's natural pacemaker, which helps this normal contracting process take place causing the heart to quiver or beat faster.
Why it's a big deal
Well, the heart is the most important organ in the body, so when it's not working properly or the cardiac cycle process breaks down, that is a big problem. Atrial fibrillation and an irregular heartbeat can lead to the build up of blood in the atria (upper chambers of the heart), forming blood clots that could increase the chances of a stroke. It can also overwork the heart muscle and lead to heart failure. The American Heart Association states that at least 2.7 million Americans are living with the condition.
How it's diagnosed
Symptoms include chest pain, fatigue, dizziness, sweating or shortness of breath. The problem is that, much like with Fitbit's exploration of sleep apnea, many of those suffering from the condition will not always display these symptoms, making it difficult to detect without a physical examination.
How Fitbit says it's going to tackle it
Fitbit is hoping it can improve the ability to detect atrial fibrillation without having to rely on a physical examination. It's looking at a few ways that might manifest itself possibly through its existing hardware or new devices and software.
One idea it is exploring is a symptom analyser and checker built into its companion phone app that works alongside the heart rate sensor from a Fitbit device to determine if your heart is in working order. Another idea is a system that will be able to let a user know when they should seek further medical help.
Detecting an irregular heart beat is a big step up from, well, counting steps. So the tech that's going to make it happen needs to leave no margin for error.
Fitbit's director of research Subramaniam Venkatraman, who revealed that the company is closely exploring heart health, says it's utilising existing PurePulse optical heart rate sensors to collect data and detect AFib.
A concern is that Fitbit's heart rate sensors have come under scrutiny in the past with concerns over accuracy. Venkatraman acknowledges that using these sensors to detect irregular heartbeats is only reliable when someone is stationary or asleep and might require the company to look at EKG heart rate monitors, which measures electrical activity in the heart and is the method commonly used in hospitals and has been for many years now.
Another challenge Fitbit will surely face is getting approval from the appropriate regulatory bodies (like the FDA for instance). When you start to talk about diagnosing serious medical conditions, Fitbit will need ensure it does everything right to make this a device that can be relied on.
How wearables are already taking on atrial fibrillation
The majority of wearables with heart rate monitors that we've come across so far have focused on the role of HR data with fitness, but there is a new breed of of devices that are keeping closer tabs on heart health.
One of those devices is the iBeat smartwatch, which promises to detect heart rate anomalies including atrial fibrillation and will alert the user when it notices irregularities. If the user doesn't reply, it will notify emergency contacts and can even pinpoint their location with GPS if something happens when you're out and about. iBeat raised funds through crowdfunding to build the wearable although it has missed its July 2017 shipping date.
AliveCor is another startup that is serious about heart health and launched its Kardia Band for the Apple Watch this year. The Kardia Band uses electrocardiogram (EKG) technology, which detects the electrical activity produced by a heartbeat offering real-time detection of AFib. Unlike iBeat, you can actually buy the Kardia Band right now.
QardioCore's chest strap is a medical-grade ECG (electrocardiogram) wearable that will send live data on your heart rate, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, temperature and activity to your phone.
Like AliveCor's Apple Watch strap, the QardioCore is designed as a preventative, everyday (or week) health monitoring device to be used at home in between check ups. It's currently available to pre-order from the Qardio website for £449.
Sensoria is best known for its smart clothing and with its second generation connected clothing range can monitor fitness but also keep a close eye on heart health. The machine washable sports bra and t-shirt has the ability to monitor heart rate variability (HRV), but also includes an alert system that constantly monitors the user's probability of cardiac irregularities during exercise.
The new cardiologist designed algorithm is able to offer a real-time alert countdown to confirm that the user is still conscious. It can also send an alert to select family or friends through a text message, and even locate you through GPS coordinates via your phone.
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