Smartwatches are bringing lab-style analysis to our wrists

Smartwatches are bringing lab-style analysis to our wristsWrist-worn devices can alert users about potentially serious medical conditions. The 34-year-old was camping in Wyoming in May when he started having trouble breathing. He felt fine overall, but his left shoulder began to ache and he broke out in a sweat. “It’s probably just a chest cold,” Glenn thought. But his Fitbit Ionic seemed to be going crazy. His heart rate was 40 — about half its normal rate. “That can’t be right,” Glenn thought. He took off the smartwatch, cleaned it and put it back on his wrist. It still flashed 40. Glenn’s wife, a nurse, pressed her head against his chest and listened. She told him they needed to get to a hospital. Immediately. Glenn was having a heart attack. His right coronary artery was completely blocked, and his central artery was 80 percent blocked. He would later learn that as a diabetic, nerve damage associated with the condition had dulled his senses, which is why he hadn’t felt a common symptom of heart attacks: chest pain. “If I didn’t have my Fitbit on, I don’t know if I would’ve put it together that all these symptoms were adding up to a heart attack,” Glenn said. “That was the sign to me that I had a problem.” The technology in smartwatches has come a long way since the early days of wearables, when rudimentary step and calorie counters were about as advanced as the devices got. Now, a new generation of devices is ushering in heart-, sleep- and blood-monitoring functions that push the accuracy of laboratory equipment to your wrist. In September, Apple introduced an FDA-cleared EKG feature in its Series 4 Watch. The feature, which hasn’t gone live yet, warns wearers about abnormal heart rhythms linked to atrial fibrillation. Fitbit and Garmin are developing features that can help detect atrial fibrillation, sleep apnea and other conditions . In April, Garmin integrated the Cardiogram app into its devices. Cardiogram’s DeepHeart algorithm has demonstrated high accuracy in detecting atrial fibrillation , hypertension, sleep apnea and diabetes . Increasing adoption The new generation of functions could kick-start the smartwatch category, which has failed to live up to the technology industry’s high hopes. High-end devices are taking over from basic fitness trackers, which analysts say is an indication that users want devices that can do more than just count our steps. Better health capabilities could give users, particularly those with medical problems, a reason to strap the devices to their wrist. “If [a wearable is] helping you manage a medical condition, it probably will turn out to be a durable utility,” says Eric Topol, executive vice president at Scripps Research, a nonprofit scientific institute. The time-stamped data wearables gather can be helpful when formulating a treatment, he says, because it’s collected in the real world rather than in a contrived, laboratory environment. Sixteen percent of US households with broadband connections report owning at least one smartwatch, according to data from Parks Associates, a market research firm. That’s up from […]

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