Wearable Health Devices Can’t Do It Alone

Health tracking devices provide information but do not necessarily affect patient behavior

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) They might be stylish, cool and fun to use, but wearable health-tracking devices aren't likely to make much difference if wearers don't change their habits.

Wearable tracking devices that count steps or monitor sleep patterns might help, but a recent article from medical experts notes that the key to health improvement is changing behavior.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia wrote in an opinion piece that there is little evidence that such devices help people change their behavior.

Personal trainer and wellness coach Rusty Gregory offered his advice on how people can motivate themselves to practice healthy habits.

"Answering the question, 'What's most important to me, right now?' will provide a deeper understanding into what motivates each one of us," said Gregory, who is the author of "Self-Care Reform: How to Discover Your Own Path to Good Health" and "Living Wheat-Free For Dummies."

"When we answer this question and learn to navigate around the obstacles that life throws at us, we are better able to make the necessary adjustments that will lead to success," he said. "There's no better motivator than ongoing success once you see the benefits of a health program satisfying what is most important to you, right now. Also, a realistic approach when setting goals is essential to success, not fancy hi-tech equipment."

Authors Mitesh S. Patel, MD, MBA, David A. Asch, MD, MBA, and Kevin G. Volpp, MD, PhD, wrote in their article, “The notion is that by recording and reporting information about behaviors such as physical activity or sleep patterns, these devices can educate and motivate individuals toward better habits and better health.”

These authors cautioned that “The gap between recording information and changing behavior is substantial, however, and while these devices are increasing in popularity, little evidence suggests that they are bridging the gap.”

Wearable tracking devices take the form of bracelets, watches or necklaces. Step counters or pedometers may be some of the best-known versions of such devices. Some devices can connect to other applications on smartphones or computers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Other, more technologically complex devices are in the works, however. Google is working on technology that would allow a wrist sensor to detect changes in a person’s biochemistry, according to BBC News.

This system combines the wrist sensor with disease-detecting nanoparticles, which the patient would swallow. The sensor could then detect biochemical changes like high blood sugar or the appearance of cancer cells.

Drs. Patel, Asch and Volpp see four challenges that must be addressed. The first step is motivation — a patient must be willing to wear or use the device, these researchers noted. Devices must also be affordable.

Second, the patient must actually wear the device on a regular basis, and — since most need to be recharged — assure that the device does get recharged.

Third, the device must do what it is designed to do by accurately tracking the targeted behavior. A pedometer that picks up body movements other than actual steps, for instance, can make it look as though the user is getting much more exercise than he or she truly is.

One of the most important aspects of wearable devices is a feedback loop. Patients must get data from the device that is easily understood and that motivates them to take a desired action.

For instance, a pedometer that presents the number of daily steps taken in comparison to the desired number of steps gives the patient an easy way to see progress. This feedback should help sustain the patient’s motivation to improve their health, in the same way a personal coach might support someone through a physical fitness program, Drs. Patel, Asch and Volpp wrote.

Devices that can also send data to a doctor could promote that sort of feedback and help patients and doctors partner to improve overall health.

“Although wearable devices have the potential to facilitate health behavior change, this change may not be driven by these devices alone," Drs. Patel, Asch and Volpp wrote. "Ultimately, it’s the engagement strategies — the combinations of individual encouragement, social competition and collaboration, and effective feedback loops — that connect with human behavior.”

This article was published Jan. 8 in JAMA.

Dr. Asch was the co-owner and principal of VAL Health, an organization that develops wellness programs. Dr. Volpp received a grant from the National Institutes of Health and has received grants or served as a consultant for CVS Caremark, a prescription benefit program. Dr. Volpp was also a co-owner of VAL Health.


Review Date: 
January 8, 2015
Last Updated:
March 13, 2015