Smart Devices Won’t Replace Your Doctor, but they Can Start Conversations about Heart Health

Bryan Hinch portraits General Internal Medicine in COMLS(Daniel Miller)

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Embedded within many of the most popular smart watches and mobile phones are a bevy of health apps that collect and report key health data in real time.

Using a mix of cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence, the devices can track your sleep, keep tabs on how much exercise you’re getting, measure your heart rate and even alert you to abnormal — and potentially dangerous — heart rhythms such as atrial fibrillation.

But how useful is all that information in the clinical space?

“The value is it makes people more aware of heart health. They’re thinking about it,” said Dr. Bryan Hinch, an internal medicine specialist at The University of Toledo Medical Center. “It’s not going to replace your doctor, but if it does come up that there might be a problem, they can bring those concerns in for us to investigate.”

Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in the United States, claiming nearly 700,000 lives every year.

Wearable technology isn’t likely to change that anytime soon. Nor will it change the things doctors frequently recommend people do to live a heart-healthy lifestyle — get plenty of physical activity, eat well, don’t smoke, maintain a healthy body weight and ensure blood pressure is within a healthy range.

That said, if understood in the right context, the health information collected by smart devices can be beneficial for both patients and providers.

“The availably and accessibility of data can be very empowering for patients. Anything that motivates you to keep better track of your health and gets you up and moving is a good thing,” Hinch said.

The American Heart Association recommends adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week.

Though Hinch wouldn’t encourage a patient to go out and buy an expensive smart watch for the sole purpose of tracking their heart health, for those who already have one, he said the information they collect can be a useful conversation starter in the clinic.

Despite the continuous integration of new technology such as ECGs and blood-oxygen sensors in smart devices, Hinch said one of the most valuable digital health accessories is a simple automated blood pressure cuff.

Given what we know about the importance of controlling blood pressure — and the prevalence of “white coat hypertension,” where readings taken at a doctor’s office are often higher than someone’s normal baseline — being able to take quick, accurate at-home readings can be beneficial for both patients and healthcare providers.

Current blood pressure guidelines say adults should target readings no higher than 120/80.

Guidelines for a healthy resting heart rate, one of the more commonly available measurements for smart devices, are generally between 60 and 100 beats per minute for adults, though there can be some variance based on age, overall fitness and other factors.

One benefit of wearable technology is that it’s there watching all the time.

Conditions like atrial fibrillation — an irregular heartbeat in the heart’s upper chambers that can increase someone’s risk of stroke — can come and go, raising the possibility it could be missed during a routine examination.

If someone brings to their appointment data from a smart device that’s suggestive of a heart arrythmia, a patient’s healthcare provider might ask them to wear a Holter monitor or event recorder to get a better, more accurate assessment of their heart.

“The best way to think about these smart devices are that they augment what we’re already doing as physicians,” Hinch said. “If your device is telling you there’s a problem, take it seriously but don’t panic. Talk to your doctor about it. One of our main focuses in primary care is assessing heart health.”