How digital fitness devices can empower patients to improve their health outcomes


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We've come a long way from the tried-and-true, humble pedometer. From trackers to watches that can seemingly do it all, digital fitness devices are owned by 1 in 10 Americans. These devices track more than just how many steps you take in a 24-hour period. We're talking number of fat calories burned, calorie intake, heart rates, the number of hours you slept and quality of sleep.

Access to all that data is helping many people shed extra weight and embrace healthier lifestyles. But these digital devices provide people with an opportunity to manage their health. In addition to tracking activity levels, weight and sleep patterns, they can use devices to track medication use, rehabilitation progress and other personal health data.

In fact, according to a study presented late this week at the 2016 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), many orthopedic patients are eager to track and improve their health and progress before, during and after treatment. More importantly, doing so empowers them to improve clinical outcomes.

The study is the first to objectively review applications of these devices specifically for orthopedic care. With consumer sales soaring, "fitness devices have the potential to transform orthopedic care," said lead study author Claudette Lajam, MD, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. "If we can get people more involved in their care and help them get in better shape, then everyone wins — patients, physicians and the entire healthcare system."

The study analyzed activity tracking, cost, interfaces, location of devices on the body and other relevant features for 28 health devices named the most popular by top consumer tech magazines. The most common features were a pedometer (tracking distance traveled), in addition to monitors for heart rate, sleep and caloric intake, although many other features were available.

Dr. Lajam said data generated by fitness devices can be applied across different levels of orthopedic care:

  • Non-surgical patients can track behavior, activity levels and medication use and alter these factors to lose weight and maintain the best possible function in their extremities.
  • Pre-operative patients can reduce risk for post-operative complications by reducing their weight, preventing diabetes through glucose monitoring, and identifying sleep disorders.
  • Post-operative patients can evaluate rehabilitation progress and surgical outcomes by measuring walking distances and stairs climbed, and alter physical therapy for better recovery.

If authorized by patients, this data also can be sent to their doctor and healthcare team, via apps that interface with Apple HealthKit, Google Fit and Microsoft HealthVault and electronic medical record systems.

Dr. Lajam said that with heightened emphasis on patient engagement and accountability, devices are an easy way for patients and physicians to share and document long-term activity. The study did not recommend specific devices, determine treatments based on information or assess accuracy of data produced by the devices.

"We urge developers of these technologies to work with surgeons, patients, payers and hospitals to create meaningful applications that optimize patient care," Dr. Lajam said.