Improving reporting on wearable devices in medical research

A host of health studies are using data from watches and other devices, but there’s a great deal of inconsistency in the reporting. A new study suggests some core standards.

Every day, Americans use watches and other devices to gauge their steps, their heart rate and other indicators to gauge their activity.

Researchers have used that data in studies and said it can be invaluable in medical research and improving healthcare. But researchers say there needs to be greater consistency in how the data from activity trackers is used.

A team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine says it has developed a framework to ensure better reporting of data from wearable devices. Their findings were published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics.

Alexandre Chan, the author of the study and UCI’s chairman and professor of clinical pharmacy practice, said in a news release there’s a “lack of standardization” in reporting.

“These devices may revolutionize healthcare by allowing researchers to monitor symptom severity and assist clinicians in providing their patients more holistic care and, ultimately, improve people’s quality of life, but the biometric statistics obtained can be highly variable,” Chan said. “Our aim is to improve the consistency of reporting.”

The researchers developed a minimum reporting threshold for using data from activity trackers in studies.

Adherence data: At least one measure of adherence should be reported, such as the percentage of days a fitness watch was worn.

Validity period: Studies should indicate if participants demonstrated adequate use of the tracker, such as use per day and week.

Physical activity: Several measures should be documented, such as step count, intensity, and sedentary activity.

The UCI researchers reviewed a host of studies including data from activity trackers. Most of those studies didn’t include the reporting of adherence to wearing fitness watches or other devices. To get the best use of the data, the study’s authors said it’s necessary to determine requirements for adherence for study participants.

The researchers said there isn’t a consensus on assessing adherence, validity and the measures of physical activity. The UCI researchers advised using a guideline of at least three days per week of wearing devices for at least 10 hours per day to evaluate adherence and physical activity.

The authors of the study said their reporting threshold could improve studies involving activity trackers.

“With the growing use of activity trackers in clinical research, these recommendations may facilitate the consistency of data reporting in future studies,” they wrote.

Researchers have said the prevalence of data from watches and even social media can be invaluable in studies to improve public health. But many consumers remain reluctant to share private information for health research, University of Pennsylvania researchers found in a recent study.

Still, wearable devices are being used more often in research.

A University of Michigan study last fall found smartwatches can offer important information about the health of large groups of people. The study, which was published in The Lancet Digital Health, found wearable devices can offer “a window into individuals’ daily lives and an opportunity to engage users in tracking and managing their health.”

The Michigan study collected reams of data before the arrival of COVID-19, so researchers said that information could be useful in gauging the long-term effects of the pandemic.