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Researchers found that resting heart rate and sleep data from the wearable devices can be used to predict outbreaks of the contagious respiratory illness more accurately than current surveillance methods.
The study, published in "The Lancet Digital Health" journal, was funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by researchers from the Scripps Research Translational Institute, which partnered with Fitbit in 2019.
"Responding more quickly to influenza outbreaks can prevent further spread and infection, and we were curious to see if sensor data could improve real-time surveillance at the state level," said Jennifer Radin, who co-authored the study.
Traditional surveillance methods can take from one to three weeks, delaying "quick outbreak response measures" such as deploying vaccines or advising people to stay home rather than go into the office, the findings suggest.
As wearable devices improve, however, "and with access to 24/7 real-time data, it may be possible to identify rates of influenza on a daily instead of weekly basis," Radin added.
In the United States, approximately 7 percent of working adults and 20 percent of children younger than 5 years old are affected by the flu every year, the study said. Worldwide, the flu is responsible for 3 million to 5 million cases of severe illness a year and 290,000 to 650,000 respiratory deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
Although devices from Fitbit, which recently agreed to sell itself to Alphabet Inc.'s Google, can be seen as a breakthrough in the advancement of human health, experts say people shouldn't rely solely on them for medical assistance.
"Although this stuff is accurate, what bothers me on a grander scale is it gives people a false sense of security,” said Philip Rosenthal, a digital forensic expert. "When they start publishing these kinds of studies, people will go, ‘Well, I'll just get a Fitbit’ and they won’t go to the doctor and get a flu shot."
Doing that, he warned, can be dangerous.
A wearable device is "a fun adjunct to your overall healthcare but it shouldn’t replace your healthcare, and you have to take it with a grain of salt," Rosenthal told Fox Business.
For the study, researchers collected data from 200,000 users who wore a device for at least 60 days between March 2016 and March 2018.
During that time, researchers tracked users' average resting heart rate and sleep duration to gauge their normal range and identify deviations.
“When a person gets sick, their resting heart rate should increase compared with their individual norm," Radin said. "Often, when you are sick, you don’t feel well and you might not be as active as you typically would be. Your sleep might be disrupted. You typically stay in bed longer."
According to the authors, this is the first time heart-rate trackers and sleep data have been used to identify outbreaks of an infectious disease such as the flu in real-time.
And that's just one of the potential uses of the technology.
"Clinical researchers are using wearables to pioneer new ways around how we understand, prevent, and treat disease and identify better approaches to keep people healthy and deliver more meaningful health outcomes," a Fitbit spokesperson told Fox Business on Friday.