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Can a Wearable Fitness Device Predict Your Heart Attack?

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The tech industry has trumpeted the promise of wearable fitness and health devices to improve care by empowering patients with a critical resource: data. But turning a stream of information into predictions of outcomes isn’t an easy task. And there are still a number of significant obstacles before this sort of tech can get us to a point where, say, a Fitbit or Jawbone-like device can accurately assess someone’s risk of a heart attack.

Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute; John Carlson, president of medical solutions at Flex FLEX -0.90% ; Dr. David Rhew, chief medical officer and health care head at Samsung Electronics America; and Dr. Dave Albert, the founder and chief medical officer at AliveCor, were among the featured guests during a breakfast discussion at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference on Wednesday. And they grappled with the regulatory and technological obstacles to developing the kind of products and services that might tell someone that they’re at imminent risk of a catastrophic heart-related incident.

Part of the problem is that current technology available to consumers only picks up on heart rhythms. That can be useful from a personalized standpoint, but it’s not the same as actually predicting an arterial problem. And it certainly doesn’t give Americans all the information (and, more importantly, the medical context) that they need to make the right decisions about their medical care when it comes to anticipating a disastrous heart problem.

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“There’s no wearable that’s likely going to provide that,” said Topol. There’s just too much uncertainty and fluctuation among available consumer devices, which would have to go through the intensive Food and Drug Administration medical-device clearance process before they could actually provide more information to caregivers. The exact genetic and biological warning signs of a brewing heart attack also aren’t totally clear yet.

But Topol expressed hope that, regulatory snags aside, the technology will eventually get there — as long as firms can collect enough relevant data about the exact biological risk factors and warning signs for a heart attack or a stroke.

This presents its own problem, as Flex’s Carlson and AliveCor’s Albert pointed out. Creating a consumer product like Fitbit isn’t the same as developing an FDA-cleared medical device. The latter proposition is far more cumbersome and even more expensive.

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Gaining FDA clearance “takes the development cycle from six months to three years,” said Carlson. Albert added that becoming an FDA-cleared device involves following a host of manufacturing rules that can gum up the works, and that there are legitimate risks to allowing this sort of tech (especially when it comes to things like “predicting” heart attacks) to run wild.

“There will always be false positives and false negatives,” said Albert. “And those results can influence patients behavior and incur, at the very least, a financial and emotional toll on them if they act on it.”

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com

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This Is the Compelling Science Behind Fitness Trackers

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I wear a fitness tracker that monitors how many steps I take each day. Ask me why, and I’ll tell you I’m not quite sure. Push me, and I’ll say it’s fun. It sort of appeals to my sense of achievement to know if I hit my Fitbit-suggested target every day of 10,000 steps.

My dichotomous enjoyment/ambivalence isn’t unusual. The companies making the trackers claim that counting your steps leads to better health. But as a user the evidence feels shaky. Stacey Burr, vice-president of wearable sports electronics for the German sneaker maker Adidas, makes a powerful argument that such nitpicking misses the point. How to use the collected information is “the next frontier,” she says. “Right now it’s about how to get people moving more and to stay with it.”

The data backs up Burr’s assertion. Just 1% of the U.S. population engages in regular vigorous exercise, she says. Seventy percent is “inactive,” a description that applies to an appallingly high percentage of children. View fitness trackers from that perspective, and the focus shifts from ‘what does this information mean?’ to ‘just getting inactive people moving is a good thing.’

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Burr, a founder of a sensor-based clothing business called Textronix that Adidas bought, spoke Wednesday at a lunch panel on “The Exercise Cure: The High-Tech Science of Fitness” at Fortune’s Brainstorm Health conference in San Diego. She says a huge opportunity for combating childhood obesity is teaching kids to be active. School systems have begun experimenting with heart-rate monitors, for example, that kids wear during gym class. Grades are based on minutes of elevated heart-rate activity, and baseline measurements can shift for children of different athletic abilities. Burr says educators have found correlations between more activity and better attendance, behavior, and academic achievement.

Yes, there’s a commercial angle here. Adidas ADDYY -6.07% has released a wrist-based heart-rate monitor for kids called Zone. It’ll be good for kids if the product succeeds.

Maybe this fitness-tracker thing really is about more than fun.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

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