10:41 30th May, 2016
How Accurate Are Fitbit Trackers? Does It Matter Though?
Team Techtree went through a series of published research papers to find out more.
Ever since it hit the market, the Fitbit range of activity trackers and wireless-enabled wearable technology in 2008, it has captured the imagination of the health-conscious across the world. With a range of 12 products and an impending IPO, the company could have done no wrong till recently.
However, things began going wrong following a study conducted by researchers at the Iowa State University in 2014 where the bands were shown as having an error rating of about ten per cent. However, another study questioned the accuracy of the heart rate and followed it up with a lawsuit.
The findings of this study, conducted by the California State Polytechnic University, suggested that there was a vast variation in the actual readings and what Fitbit reported. Reports in the local media networks began questioning three things:
(a) Was the research above board?
(b) Does Fitbit work as per its claims and
(c) Does it really matter if they do not?
At Techtree, we did a bit of research into the media reports that emanated post the lawsuit and believe that the truth has yet to come out. Here is what we found:
• Was the research above board - All data related to the research conducted by the university is to be found in the Civil Justice Blog of Leiff Cabraser, law firm that filed the fraud class action lawsuit against Fitbit. This is what the two researchers had to state about their project: “After carefully analyzing the more than 46 hours’ worth of comparative data— including hundreds of thousands of individual data points—that resulted from this testing, Dr. Jo and Dr. Dolezal concluded that the Fitbit devices simply do not accurately track users’ actual heart rates, particularly during exercise. At moderate to high exercise intensities, the average difference between the Fitbit devices and the ECG was approximately 20 beats per minute, well beyond any reasonable or expected margin of error.” So what makes us see red?
o The challenge is that this research paper hasn’t yet been published in a scientific journal – considered by the academic community as a must to depict scholarship and advanced knowledge in a chosen domain.
o Secondly, there is also the small issue that the law firm, which paid for the study, actually had something to gain from the research study casting aspersions on the product.
• Does Fitbit work as per its claims? – This is part of the statement that Fitbit shared with a blogger on Forbes: “Fitbit’s research team rigorously researched and developed PurePulse (heart rate monitoring) technology for three years prior to introducing it to market and continues to conduct extensive internal studies to test the features of our products. The challenge is that the results of this study haven’t been published!
o Another study published last month in the British Medical Journal (read it here) about the overall accuracy of wrist-based heart-rate monitors suggested that when fitted snugly on to the user’s wrist, the devices were accurate enough for ‘recreational purposes as well as for research”.
o Another research paper quotes from a Japanese study (read it here) to claim that most of the devices tested actually underestimated the calories burnt during a workout. The research team played it safe by suggesting that further studies alone can confirm their findings. Of course, these researchers found Fitbit to be among the most accurate of the devices they tested.
• Does it really matter? – Now, we come to the third point about the storm in the media over the wearable devices used for calculating the efficacy of one’s workout.
o For starters, experts argue that these devices are meant for healthy people who probably uses them as an inspiration to working out daily and to possibly share their successes on social platforms
o The second aspect relates to the accuracy standards of these wearable devices, as evinced by the Japanese researchers. The devices have not yet got medical approval from any major organizations to guarantee their efficacy.
o Finally, the sensor and app manufacturers aren’t actually calling their products as a ‘disease management’ device. They are variously described as ‘wellness support’ or ‘devices designed to improve health behaviors.’
So, where does it leave the consumers? To be honest, they can continue to buy wearable devices with a motivational intent so long as manufacturers clarify that their products have a tangible medical benefit in terms of taking the task of health monitoring from the healthcare professional to the individual.
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