Helpful or hype? Wearable tech makes its way into clinical practice

By Nicole LaMarco
Published January 20, 2022

Key Takeaways

  • Wearables are devices that can measure health outcomes like heart rate, body temperature, and oxygen saturation.

  • Many wearables only detect basic health information. However, wearables with more advanced technology may be useful for healthcare providers.

  • Few wearables have FDA approval, which may be necessary for the data to become clinically relevant.

Mainstream wearables—the biometric data-gathering watches, rings, and straps that adorn wrists and fingers—can provide healthcare professionals with insights about their patients, perhaps someday assisting with diagnosis and treatment planning. As technology develops, wearables tell us more about how the human body reacts to its environment in real-time. The clinical relevance of this data, however, has yet to be determined.

Not all wearables provide clinician-caliber biometric data, resulting in a reluctance to include the data in the patient chart—and that leaves many guessing about which products are helpful for themselves and their patients. Furthermore, you can have too much health data, which may provoke stress and feelings of anxiety in patients and consumers.

Wearables explained

What is a wearable?

Wearables are electronic devices that collect health information through smart sensors and artificial intelligence. Research indicates that these tools may increase human health and wellness. 

A 2020 study examining the theoretical and practical implications of wearables found that these high-tech devices are helpful for “disease prevention and health management for users.”

Wearables also have a role to play in chronic disease monitoring. For example, a 2019 study found that wearable devices, such as smartwatches or finger pulse oximeters, can measure data effectively for patients with conditions that cause clinically significant breathing problems.

Popular brands like Apple, FitBit, and Garmin have created smartwatches that measure everything from heart rate to sleep patterns. Users connect to a smartphone app via Bluetooth to collect and analyze health data to operate them. Common devices also include wristbands, rings, and straps.

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Promising wearables on the market

Out of all the wearables on the market, the three most likely to provide helpful information to clinicians are the Oura Ring, Whoop Strap, and Movano Ring. These wearables go beyond measuring basic health information, and some are tailored toward specific lifestyles. Research corroborates the positive reviews on each wearable, indicating they may possess some clinical relevance and utility along with practical functionality.

Oura Ring

Rated four out of five stars for quality and usefulness by PCMag, the Oura Ring breaks with the crowd of smart straps and watches. It is lightweight and can be worn in nearly any situation. Its upgraded sensors and algorithm, along with the extended battery life, can measure heart rate and body temperature nonstop—even while sleeping. It also has built-in meditation and anti-anxiety programs, women’s health features, respiratory rate detectors, and heart rate variability detectors. Temperature is measured through seven sensors. 

Whoop Strap

The Whoop Strap is shaped like the traditional FitBit or Apple Watch and used by many professional athletes. Wired rated it as a 6/10 for usefulness. The strap is geared toward athletes, fitness buffs, and anyone who frequently exercises. Using HRV, it detects key metrics such as resting heart rate, sleep cycles, blood oxygen level, and more.  It can also pick up the body’s reaction to stress over 4, 7, 14, and 30-day periods with upgraded technology. The strap also features a daily journal for users to record different health outcomes or symptoms they experienced. 

A 2020 study on this wearable shows it’s effective for sleep staging and overall health. Understanding the collected information should be a breeze for healthcare providers, making the Whoop Strap potentially useful for doctors and other medical professionals. 

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Movano Ring

Finally, the Movano Ring is perhaps the most helpful wearable for healthcare professionals. It is designed to help monitor chronic illnesses by measuring sleep, heart rate, respiration, blood oxygen level, calories, steps, and temperature. 

Movano’s capability of predicting menstruation and side effects may someday benefit HCPs in women’s health. The company aims to have FDA clearance soon to add features like non-invasive glucose and blood pressure monitoring. 

Many physicians may welcome the integration of wearable data such as this into clinical discussions with patients. For example, a survey by HIMSS found half of the physicians surveyed think wearable technology can complement their care, and 70% favored being able to automatically send data to patients.

Clinical relevance?

The data collected by wearables someday may be instrumental in diagnosing complex illnesses and monitoring vulnerable populations, such as those residing in nursing homes or with progressive conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. 

A 2021 study concluded that wearable technology could keep patients with Alzheimer’s disease in their own homes longer, and reduce hospital stays. A 2019 study shows that wearable technology is essential for monitoring long-term health in the ever-increasing population of the elderly. Someday, these devices may communicate what the patient cannot.

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Wearables may prove to be an excellent way to get patients involved in their healthcare. And, these devices may provide daily health insights that patients might otherwise never receive. 

There are some logistical hurdles to clear first, however. One challenge is that most health information services groups, which are the groups that control the content of the medical record, “are very skittish about automatically having home-monitored data loaded into an EHR,” said Joseph Kvedar, MD, in a 2015 ACP Internist article. “What we do is present home-derived patient-generated data as a graph or table, and clinicians can look at it within the medical record, but it only becomes part of the record if the clinician actually chooses to enter data in themselves.”

This reluctance may persist until devices receive FDA approval and the data is deemed consistently reliable.  

In addition, as healthcare technology becomes more accessible, a gray area develops. As highlighted in a recent CNET article, the blurred delineation between the medical field and the health and wellness industry can cause potential conflicts regarding how clinicians can appropriately use data from wearables in terms of reliability and validity. 

What this means for you

The quality of the biometric data obtained from wearables appears to be trending toward a clinical level of sophistication. However, clinicians may want to proceed with caution. Many of these wearables are still seeking FDA approval for features with potential clinical relevance. Regardless of FDA approval, the proven clinical methods that typify patient encounters will endure and remain at your disposal.


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