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Health Systems Collaborating with Fitbit to Use Connected Health Technologies for Research and Patient Engagement

July 29, 2016
by Heather Landi
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Researchers at several large health systems, such as Johns Hopkins University and Northwestern Medicine, have been using Fitbit and Fitabase technologies to incorporate fitness data into clinical studies and for mHealth patient engagement projects.

Executives at Fitbit, a digital health company in the connected health and fitness market, stated in a press release that the company has been working with Fitabase, a research platform that collects data from internet-connected devices, in order to pull and collect more than 2 billion minutes of Fitbit data for use in health research.

Fitbit and Fitabase technologies have been used by researchers at research institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University, Northwestern Medicine, the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and the University of California San Diego, according to a Fitbit press release. “Over the last four years, Fitbit and Fitabase have changed the way research is done by helping researchers continuously and objectively measure physical activity, engage patients in a new way, and enable just-in-time adaptive interventions,” the company stated.

“Historically, measuring participants’ activity, sleep, and heart rate data over significant periods of time has been logistically difficult to collect and costly to measure,” Aaron Coleman, CEO of Fitabase, said in a prepared statement. Coleman noted that Fitbit’s technology provides researchers with a way to capture 25/7, real-time data in order to design innovative study protocols.  

San Francisco-based Fitbit in a leader in the wearables market and its announcement this week indicates that it is making a real push into the healthcare industry to encourage collaboration between providers and digital health and wellness companies.

“Supporting the research community is critical to our efforts as we continue to grow as a digital health company,” Amy McDonough, vice president and general manager of Fitbit Group Health, which brings together the offerings Fitbit provides to corporate wellness partners, health management practitioners, and health researchers, said in a statement. “Fitbit has always been focused on empowering people to lead healthier, more active lives through data and insights. Fitabase has helped make our mission a reality with researchers by allowing them to better engage study participants, collect more objective data, and ultimately, develop new interventions that may positively influence patient care.”

According to Fitbit, a recent validation study that used the Fitabase platform was published in the International Journal of Cardiology and concluded that Fitbit trackers may be “an accurate, reliable, and efficient tool for physicians to track the adoption/maintenance of physical activity programs and support their patient’s attempt at an active lifestyle.”

Investigators from Northwestern Medicine and the University of California San Francisco collaborated with Fitbit and Fitabase to conduct a joint study on minimally invasive spine surgeries for degenerative disease and deformity, such as correcting scoliosis. In an effort to better predict recovery over time for patients who undergo spine surgery, the researchers are monitoring physical activity using Fitbit trackers. During the four weeks before surgery and for six months afterward, Fitbit devices will capture personal data on a patient’s steps and activity levels. The goal of the study, according to the press release, is to enable physicians to use a physical activity monitoring approach to predict which patients are at risk of hospital readmission.

According to Fitbit executives, UCSF is collaborating with both Fitbit and Fitabase in a study to test the impact of improved physical fitness on patients awaiting liver transplantation. “Clinical observations have indicated that, for liver transplant candidates, regular physical activity has the potential to reduce the likelihood of patient hospitalization and may increase patients’ ability to withstand acute events while awaiting liver transplantation. All 200 participants awaiting transplant in the study, sponsored by the American Society of Transplantation, will be equipped with Fitbit Alta to help them stay physically active in an exercise program,” the press release stated.

“My patients told me very clearly that, if they were going to wear a device, it had to be easy to wear, easy to use, and offer information they cared about in an accessible fashion. I have found that providing patients with health trackers can be a motivating factor – and sometimes the deciding factor – for deciding to participate or not,” Jennifer Lai, M.D., a general and transplant hepatologist at UCSF, said in a prepared statement. “We are hoping that a name brand device will encourage people to join and engage in the study.”

Dr. Eric Hekler, assistant professor at Arizona State University and director of the Designing Health Lab, in collaboration with Dr. Daniel Rivera, also at Arizona State University, is incorporating Fitbit data into research on “precision behavior change.” “Learnings from his studies may help move the precision medicine movement forward by creating health interventions that are adaptive and individualized, versus static and generalized,” Fitbit executives stated in the press release.

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