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Fitbit begins study to determine if devices can detect heart irregularities

08 May 2020

Fitbit today announced the launch of its Heart Study, a research project to determine whether its wearable technology can identify episodes of irregular heart rhythm, which could indicate atrial fibrillation (AFib) – the most common form of heart irregularity.

To track heart rate, Fitbit’s devices use photoplethysmography (PPG) technology to measure the rate of blood flow directly from a user’s wrist. 

Theoretically, these measurements can be used to determine a user’s heart rhythm, which Fitbit’s algorithm can analyse for irregularities in the Fitbit Heart Study. 

Fitbit says its study aims to enrol hundreds of thousands of participants and its results will support Fitbit's regulatory submissions globally. 

The study provides participants with a free virtual appointment with a doctor if they receive a notification about irregular heart rhythm, and then may receive an electrocardiogram (ECG) patch in the mail at no cost to confirm the notification.

AFib is a global issue, affecting nearly 33.5 million people around the world, and patients with AFib have a five times higher risk of stroke.  

It can also be difficult to detect, as episodes can be sporadic and asymptomatic, and some studies suggest that as many as 25% of people who have an AFib-related stroke only find out they have AFib after a stroke has occurred. 

“Until recently, tools for detecting AFib had a number of limitations and were only accessible if you visited a doctor,” says Fitbit Heart Study principal investigator, cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School Steven Lubitz. 

“My hope is that advancing research on innovative and accessible technology, like Fitbit devices, will lead to more tools that help improve health outcomes and reduce the impact of AFib on a large scale.”

Fitbit says long-term heart rhythm assessment, essential for the study, is enabled through their device’s 24/7 heart tracking system and long battery life.

In fact, the company says the optimal way to identify AFib is to track heart rate while a user is asleep, making a wearable accessory like the Fitbit an ideal device to utilise.

“Since we first brought heart rate tracking to the wrist in 2015, we have continued to innovate and provide users with a deeper understanding of their heart health through features like Sleep Stages, Cardio Fitness Level and now Active Zone Minutes,” says Fitbit co-founder and chief technology officer Eric Friedman.

“The Fitbit Heart Study advances our heart health efforts. Long-term passive heart rhythm assessment with our wide range of affordable devices powered by 24/7 heart rate tracking technology has the potential to improve earlier identification of AFib, which is a key to reducing the risk of a life-threatening event like stroke. 

“By doing this important research we have the opportunity to develop and provide access to technology that may be able to improve public health and save lives.”