Activity Trackers: Smart, Connected, and Saving Lives

When we talk about smart connected products and the internet of things, one of the first examples people can relate to are activity trackers. Many of us already have smartwatches and wearables that reward us with a vibrating virtual high-five for meeting daily step goals (or shame us for spending lunch hour watching YouTube videos).

I’ll make up for it this weekend.

Now it appears these devices do something even more important than monitoring our daily successes and failures. They save our lives.

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When did the problem start?

In a story from the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), ER doctors recently used a patient’s personal activity tracker and smartphone to identify the time his heart problems started, which allowed them to treat a life-threatening condition quickly and effectively. 

According to the ACEP, a 42-year old man presented at an emergency room with arterial fibrillation, but he didn’t have any previous symptoms and couldn’t tell when the problem started. That’s an important piece of missing data because it helps determine how a cardio patient should be treated.

Fortunately, the man was wearing a smart watch. So staff simply accessed the man’s phone application, which was connected to his activity tracker. They quickly saw that the patient’s normal heart rate of 70 jumped up to 190 (yikes) just three hours earlier.

“The device told us that the patient’s atrial fibrillation was present for only a few hours,” said Alfred Sacchetti, MD, FACEP of Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center. “That was well within the 48-hour window needed to consider him for rhythm conversion, so we cardioverted him and sent him home.”

Cardioversion is a medical procedure that uses electricity or drugs to reset the heart rate.  Healthcare workers typically sedate the patient and then apply an electrical current to the body. You’ve seen something like it in almost all medical dramas. Here’s how it happens in real life:

Cardioversion was successful in the case of the connected 42-year old. After bringing the man’s heart to a normal rhythm, health care workers looked at the smartphone app again, to confirm that it showed his heart rate was under control.  Then they discharged the patient with instructions to follow up with outpatient cardiology.

Fast treatment for a high school athlete

It’s not the first time a tracker device has alerted a user and even saved a life. Last year a high school football player experienced back and chest pains during practice. His watch showed his heart rate was a stunning 145, or double the usual rate. The coaching staff acted quickly and brought him to the emergency room where he was treated.

“If it wasn’t for the [device] to alert him to the fact that there was a problem…he would have showed up for practice the next day and would have been one of the kids you read about every fall, who drops dead on the football field,” said the athlete’s father in Shape magazine.

What to wear in an emergency

So is your smart watch now as essential to your health like seat belts and bike helmets? Not officially.

"Not all activity trackers measure heart rates, but this is the function of most value to medical providers," said Dr. Sacchetti.  "Dizziness with a heart rate of 180 would be approached very differently from the same complaint with a heart rate of 30.  At present, activity trackers are not considered approved medical devices and use of their information to make medical decisions is at the clinician's own discretion. 

“However, the increased use of these devices has the potential to provide emergency physicians with objective clinical information prior to the patient's arrival at the emergency department."

Saving lives with the IoT

Stories like these illustrate just how smart connected products and design are continuing to make lives better, even beyond what we initially may have thought. When designers first fired up their CAD software to design and build the first activity trackers did they realize they’d also be saving lives?

Maybe not, but they certainly know now.

[Ed. Find out more about how the Internet of Things impacts you. Attend LiveWorx 2016, June 6-9 in Boston and learn how to streamline product development today and design smarter things tomorrow.]