Fitbit is launching a study
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The Alphabet-owned wearables developer is taking a leaf out of competitor Apple's book with the launch of a virtual study to validate the use of its heart rate monitoring tech in detecting atrial fibrillation (AFib) — a prevalent type of irregular heartbeat. Fitbit is preparing to enroll “hundreds of thousands” of participants.
Results that the Fitbit Heart Study generates will inform FDA clearance for the AFib algorithm, which it's been after since 2018. For context, the AFib algorithm is built into Fitbit's heart rate monitoring systems embedded in its wearables, which use LED light to measure the speed at which blood is flowing.
Fitbit has been upping its branding as a healthcare service in recent years — and even before it announced the Heart Study, Fitbit was gaining attraction for its potential to detect AFib.
Fitbit has made a number of moves to expand its Health Solutions division and counts hundreds of payer partners using the service to empower members to maintain healthy habits. For example, Fitbit acquired chronic disease management platform Twine Health in February 2018, laying the groundwork to make its line of wearables more relevant to potential health plan and health system partners.
And its Fitbit Premium service, launched in August 2019, mines consumer data to provide personalized health insights that could guide care. The service was created collaboratively with physicians so consumers could share actionable data with their doctors. Fitbit plans to use the Premium service to get into the management of costly chronic conditions like diabetes, sleep apnea, and hypertension.
Findings from the newly announced study should help Fitbit double down on its budding AFib-specific partnerships. The wearable maker tied up with pharma giants Pfizer and Bristol-Myers Squibb in October 2019 to link users at risk of developing AFib with tools and guidance that could help them address the problem early on.
However, the programs Fitbit is developing with the pharma companies won't be rolled out until the AFib feature lands FDA clearance. If approved, the feature could play a significant role in helping healthcare players rein in healthcare spending on the costly heart condition by catching it earlier and guiding users toward proper care: AFib afflicts up to 6 million US patients and costs the US $26 billion annually.
The coronavirus pandemic inhibits participants from trekking into labs or hospitals for check-ins, putting a spotlight on tech like Fitbit's that helps researchers connect with participants virtually. For instance, Boston-based biotech Vertex shifted to virtual visits and drug delivery for some of its ongoing trials so that participants don't need to venture out to trial sites as the coronavirus requires patients — especially those who are immunocompromised — to stay home.
And we think that research institutions will start investing more heavily in tech like Apple's and Fitbit's to remotely monitor and gather real-time data for participants amid the pandemic and beyond as we expect the remote monitoring market to swell — so, the faster Fitbit gets this study off the ground, the faster it'll be able to claim a piece.
And while we doubt it'll be difficult for the wearable maker to drum of pools of virtual participants, retaining these users won't be so easy. Fitbit will likely see success in roping in users to opt into its research: Apple wowed the clinical research community when it took less than a year to hook in 400,000 Apple Heart Study participants — making it the largest AFib study ever conducted.
But ensuring those participants don't slip through its fingers has been another story: In the study, about 2,200 participants got notifications about possible AFib — only 945 of those participants followed up with a telehealth visit with an American Well doc, per MobiHealthNews. But Fitbit's Heart Study may be launching at a good time, and could prime the research endeavor for long-term participant engagement: We think that as US consumers get more comfortable with telehealth, they'll warm to the idea of participating in all-digital studies so long as developers bolster convenience.