A version of that fitness tracker on your wrist could someday be used to transmit real time health data to your doctor.
For 10,000 people taking part in an innovative new study, that future is already becoming reality.
The project is a large-scale longitudinal observational study that will analyze data gathered from thousands of participants using wearable health trackers and other assessment tools.
These include sleep-monitoring sensors and self-reported information submitted via an online portal and a mobile app.
Conducting the research
Each participant will receive a Study Watch designed by Verily that will track and transmit individual electrocardiogram, heart rate, electrodermal activity, and movement data to the company’s cloud-based servers.
The data will be encrypted to protect privacy.
Separately, Project Baseline researchers will gather genomic, mental health, physical health, and family history information through blood tests, surveys, and in-person interviews.
“Previously, these were all studied in a very segmented way,” Dr. Adrian Hernandez, professor of medicine at Duke University, and a principal investigator on Project Baseline, told Healthline. “This study is a way to bring all [of these aspects of health] together.”
The goal is to develop a “picture of total health” for each study participant, said Hernandez.
That, in turn, can be used to develop a baseline for defining good health.
Tracking health on an hourly basis
More broadly, the four-year Project Baseline study is aimed at creating a “rich data platform that may be used to better understand the transition from health to disease and identify additional risk factors for disease.”
One of the standard assessment tools for cardiovascular risk is the 6-Minute Walk Test, which measures heart and lung function based on how far a patient can walk in a short span of time.
“What we would actually like to know is how patients are doing every hour or day or week,” said Hernandez. “What we have now is a very reactive healthcare system. What we want to get to is a proactive system, where we can predict problems early on and nip them in the bud. Ideally, we get a greater ability to deliver the right care to each patient at the right time.”
Project Baseline is currently recruiting study participants who will wear the Study Watch for four years, and reap the benefits of having their health monitored on an ongoing basis.
“We’ll be reporting results to the participants,” as well as for the study, noted Hernandez.
Advances in wearable devices
Health monitoring devices for individuals not enrolled in research studies have become increasingly sophisticated.
For example, the QardioCore monitor straps to the chest and delivers continuous ECG, heart rate, heart rate variability, respiratory rate, skin temperature, and activity data to doctors.
It can also be synced to Quardio’s free mobile app or the Apple Health app.
Motiv and Bodytrak have unveiled health monitoring devices that can be worn on the finger (as a ring) or in the ear (like an earbud), respectively, at the 2017 Computer Electronics Show, according to Bertalan Mesko, PhD, a health technology expert and author of the Medical Futurist blog.
Technology aside, it will still be up to individuals to heed their doctor’s advice based on the data received.
“Giving certain technologies to people will not lead to behavior change. Behavior change only takes place if proper coaching supports the use of disruptive technologies,” noted Mesko. “But in general, the real potential of such studies lies in the essence of using … devices to obtain anonymous data about health behavior and lifestyle change. From that aspect, this could be the first step of a revolutionary scientific method.”
Other ongoing studies
Other major research studies also are integrating the use of health-tracking technology, including the All of Us study at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The study, part of the $130 million Precision Medicine Initiative, will enroll more than 1 million Americans in an attempt to develop more effective ways to prevent and treat disease.
“[It’s] the most far-reaching medical research initiative in the history of the United States,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, in a press statement.
The institute will enroll participants and assess emerging wearables and other medical devices for use in the study.
All of Us volunteers will contribute health and lifestyle information in surveys, undergo health exams, donate blood and urine samples, monitor their own health, and submit data via mobile apps, websites, interactive voice response, feature phones, and wearable sensors.
“This range of information at the scale of 1 million people from all walks of life will be an unprecedented resource to understand all of the factors that influence health and disease,” said NIH Director, Dr. Francis S. Collins, in announcing the study in July 2016. “Over time, data provided by participants will help us answer important health questions, such as why some people with elevated genetic and environmental risk factors for disease still manage to maintain good health, and how people suffering from a chronic illness can maintain the highest possible quality of life. The more we understand about individual differences, the better able we will be to effectively prevent and treat illness.”