Your Doctor Does Not Give a Crap About Your Fitness Tracker Data

Illustration for article titled Your Doctor Does Not Give a Crap About Your Fitness Tracker Data

Patients are increasingly bringing their fitness-tracker data to their checkups. Not only are doctors ill-equipped to deal with this information—they’re skeptical that it’s even useful.


As Andrew Rosenblum points out in his latest MIT Technology Review article, doctors are profoundly unimpressed with wearables manufactured by the likes of Fitbit, Apple, and Pebble. As patients disclose the troves of information collected by these fitness-trackers, physicians are at a loss to understand the significance of the data, while also questioning the accuracy of such devices.

Rosenblum quotes Andrew Trister of Sage Bionetworks as saying:

I’m an oncologist, and I have these patients who are proto ‘quantified self’ kinds of people. They come in with these very large Excel spreadsheets, with all this information—I have no idea what to do with that.

It’s difficult, says Trister, to interpret potential trends embedded within this data, particularly from a clinical perspective. To which a senior research scientists adds: “Clinicians can’t do a lot with the number of steps you’ve taken in a day.”

It doesn’t help that most of these fitness-trackers aren’t as reliable or robust as medical-grade devices. As Rosenblum writes:

And in fact wearable devices such as the Fitbit haven’t been clinically validated to perform at the same standards for reliability that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uses for medical devices, such as the traditional blood-pressure cuff in a doctor’s office. Consumer wearables are marketed under the FDA’s less rigorous “wellness-focused” rubric.

According to Trister, the most promising devices aren’t the generalized ones, but rather the ones that target a specific metric, such as Empatica’s Embrace wristband, which tracks stress levels via skin conductance.

All this said, physicians aren’t discounting the ability of fitness trackers to get people off their asses. Through the use of these devices, people are becoming increasingly aware of not just their level of activity, but their level of inactivity, which can be as illuminating as it is motivating (though it can also lead to obsessive behaviors).


Rosenblum is right to point out the current limitations of fitness trackers, but it would be a mistake to dismiss the tremendous potential of these devices in the future. Yes, doctors aren’t equipped to deal with this information right now, but that’s going to change. As clinicians become increasingly aware of these trackers, and as they collect better and more accurate data over time, these devices could become a powerful tool for helping patients—especially those with chronic diseases.

Read the entire article at Technology Review.

Email the author at and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image of Nike Fuel Band: RogDel/CC BY-SA 2.0


Mika McKinnon

Tiny counter-example: Some trackers can help confirm that things really are a weird abnormality for you and that you’re not just experiencing slipping baselines, or to hone in on where to start the diagnosis.

A friend wears a heart monitor for fun. He felt kinda non-descriptively tired all week, did a Tough Mudder and performed far below par for him, and still felt crap the next Monday. He checked out his heart data, it was clearly off from normal so he knew it wasn’t just a cold. He went to the clinic, got checked over with preliminary heart tests and sent home with a, “Come back tomorrow if it’s still bad.” He was, so he came back, was sent through a more extensive testing battery. By the end of the day he was booked into a heart clinic; by the end of the month he had a pump installed; by the end of the season he had a new heart.

The typical diagnosis for an outwardly-healthy 32-year-old man complaining of fatigue would be stress, diet, exercise, or a minor illness. Because he had the data to identify a heart abnormality, the doctors went chasing down that route right away instead of not noticing until his heart slowly, silently sputtered out. The doctors didn’t use his tracking data, but he could use his tracking data to advocate for himself.