In its ads, Apple often shows how its watch users monitor their health. They measure their oxygen levels, check their heart rate, monitor their activity and, in the latest advert, they constantly take an EKG. The hero does this while riding the bus, working in the office and even while relaxing at a kiddie pool party. The point of the commercial is clear: the latest Apple Watch is so powerful that you can perform advanced medical tests anywhere in seconds. But that begs at least one question. Do we need it? Or were we better off without such capabilities?
Why not buy a smartwatch
While smartwatches have allowed us to draw conclusions about our lifestyles and health, and at the same time encouraged many to keep an eye on these things, the rise in popularity of this gadget has cost us dearly. This has caused a wave of concern among users, who have become pathologically obsessive and tend to overestimate every warning from their wearable devices.
Dr Lindsay Rosman, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of cardiology at the University of North Carolina, says her clinic has seen an increase in the number of patients worried about the information they receive from their smartwatches.
Could smartwatches affect health?
For example, in one particularly neglected case that Rosman wrote about in a recent research paper, a 70-year-old woman suffering from atrial fibrillation took 916 ECG tests on her watch in one year. As a result, she was hospitalised 12 times and sought medical help remotely (by phone) many times.
The smartwatch data did not affect the woman’s treatment, but ultimately her diagnosis was that she was overly concerned about her health. This had an “extremely negative impact on her mental health, relationships and quality of life”.
One of the reasons why cases like this are becoming more and more common is that data about our health conditions is raining down on us in an uncontrollable and unexplained stream. If your smartwatch informs the user that they may be suffering from a medical condition, they will believe it. Especially if they back it up with some charts. This applies not only to the aforementioned Apple Watch but also to other watches from Samsung, Huawei, Garmin and other brands.
Can smartwatches be trusted?
Even though the latest wearable devices can detect certain health problems, they still cannot compare to professional medical equipment. For example, even a slight movement of the wrist is enough to give an ECG the wrong results. The user will eventually receive a warning, and then it’s up to the user’s imagination.
This trend towards hyper-vigilant, compulsive self-monitoring with wearable devices comes as no surprise to Rosman. Especially as her findings are backed up by other studies. One was conducted at the University of Copenhagen and involved more than two dozen chronic patients. Its authors came to the same conclusions as Dr Rosman.
The problem with collecting accurate data is that there is a one-size-fits-all model operating in household fitness devices, while the human body often functions very differently. This largely explains why they sometimes do more harm than good.
Sometimes, because of this, trackers require something too universal from the user. For example, a report from the University of Copenhagen says that one of the people studied was constantly being warned by the watch to get eight hours of sleep, but that physiologically less was enough for him. This has been proven by medical research.
Should the patient stick to their existing routine or change their habits to follow what the tracker suggests? There is no definite answer, but many experts tend to answer in the negative.
Dr Emma Rich, professor of physical activity and health pedagogy at the University of Bath in England, has found that an obsession with raw data alone can lead to health problems in young people. And the fact that the data often diverges from how they actually feel can cause even more stress.
She adds that reducing a person’s health numbers to arbitrary figures, such as step norms, without a proper understanding of their true condition can lead to people engaging in inappropriate behaviours, such as eating.
What should change in smartwatches?
Experts believe that closer cooperation between the manufacturers of such devices and medical organisations is needed to prevent anxiety caused by smartwatches. Patients and users generally need the education to understand the mountains of data their wearable devices collect and know when they should (and shouldn’t) go to a medical facility.
Smartwatches have indeed saved lives, but as they gain more and more professional medical abilities, they have to be monitored more and more closely. Then lives will be saved and there will be no unnecessary anxiety for users. For example, when my watch recorded a high heart rate for a long time, I got seriously nervous.
But it turned out that I was just very tired and needed a good night’s sleep. So there is little or no alarm until the watch gives some kind of warning, albeit an erroneous one.