Dr. Charlotte Middleton: Are Wearables Making Us More Anxious?

By Women Love Tech
on 10 November 2018

Australians love wearables. A recent survey by Ansible showed that almost one in five Australians owns a wearable device and demand is only predicted to grow.

The health and wellness features found on the latest wearables are particularly impressive, with devices like the Apple Watch Series 4 boasting an advanced heart rate monitor, electrocardiogram (ECG) and fall detection.

It also includes several wellbeings focused features such as automatic workout detection and a ‘rivalries’ mode that allows you to compare your fitness progress with friends.

The natural result of greater wearable adoption is a general increase in health and wellbeing awareness, especially as more people have access to medical information right on their wrist.

While wearables have the potential to help us be more health-aware and diagnose conditions earlier, there is also the risk that they are exacerbating health anxiety and hypochondria, especially as the medical features become more advanced.

Wearables and anxiety

Wearables are integrating advanced health functionalities that are bringing a new set of health features to a broader consumer audience.

Take the Watch Series 4. It integrates detection for Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), an abnormal heartbeat that could lead to complications if not checked. This is a feature that was once reserved for specialist medical devices or tools found in the GP office.

However, this also increases the risk of consumer self-diagnosis and hypochondria. To illustrate, a recent study found that almost half of all attempts to self-diagnose using Dr. Google led to people believing they have cancer.

Using wearables as an example, most consumers may not be aware that physical fitness, age, medications, activity level, length of sleep and body position can cause your morning heart rate to vary.

It is therefore important that patients check with their doctor as to what is a normal heart rate range for them, so as to not cause undue concern. This is the major reason why the role of the doctor is important now more than ever before – they are the professionals who we rely on to provide trusted insights into our health and wellbeing.

Patient education

Patients are craving more information and insights into their health, partly due to an increased focus on wellness features in wearables.

A recent survey by MedicalDirector found that 90% of respondents ‘want a fact sheet from their GP explaining their condition and how to better manage it,’ with 70% adding that they would like to see Healthcare providers use ‘digital tools, mobile technology, and the internet to improve patient experience.’

I have two takeaways from this. Firstly, as consumers have more access to information, through Dr. Google or other means, they want to know that they can trust the information they are given.

As indicated by the survey, patients would prefer that information to come from their doctor, where they know it has been fact-checked and is relevant to their situation. Having access to credible information from a doctor will significantly reduce patient anxiety.

Secondly, as wearables become more prominent, patients expect their doctor to make more use of technology. We have already seen implementations of augmented reality within the GP office and cloud computing technology is empowering practices to integrate ‘convenience’ services like SMS reminders and notification of tests results. Technological integration will only become more of a focus as these devices empower more comprehensive doctor/patient consultations.

The future of healthcare and wearables

This brings me to the last and most important point – the true power of wearables is yet to be unleashed. Consumer wearables manufacturers like Apple, Fitbit, and Garmin to name a few, are developing truly revolutionary wearables products that have the potential to save lives. Just look at the ‘fall detection’ feature on the Series 4 watch – imagine if Aron Lee Ralston, the hiker who famously had to amputate his own arm after falling in the desert, had a wearable with this feature. Emergency services could have been notified, well before it came to losing a limb.

But here is the clincher – it is the professionals in the medical community that will unlock the real potential of wearables and other consumer devices. They are the ones who will use the information from these devices as a data point to enable better care for patients around the world. The health industry and consumer tech giants will need to work together to define the best way to get the relevant health information into the hands of the medical professionals that need it the most. Only then will we able to say that the device on your wrist could one day save your life.

Dr. Charlotte Middleton is a GP and Chief Clinical Adviser at MedicalDirector, a medical software and information provider.

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