Fitbit launches study to test if devices can detect irregular heartbeat

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is set to buy smartwatch maker FitBit, which is valued at about $2.1 billion.

Fitbit has begun a study to see whether or not its wearable devices can detect irregular heartbeats that suggest atrial fibrillation (AFib).

The company, which is set to be acquired by Google's parent company Alphabet Inc. this year, announced the news Wednesday.

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The large-scale virtual study aims to enroll hundreds of thousands of people, according to a press release. It’s part of Fitbit’s wide-ranging strategy to bring accessibility to easy-to-use tools that hasten detection of a variety of conditions.

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

The American College of Cardiology has estimated AFib affects 33.5 million people around the world. The risk of AFib increases with age and its burden increases the risk of stroke, Lin Y. Chen, M.D., M.S., F.A.C.C. told the ACC. The heart arrhythmia can also be hard to detect.

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Fitbit said their wearables “have the unique potential to accelerate AFib detection because their 24/7 heart rate tracking is powered by long battery life.” That battery life gives users the ability to wear the devices for several days. The multiday wear time enables heart assessment to be conducted longterm.

“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,” said Eric Friedman, Fitbit co-founder and CTO in a press release. “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,” Friedman continued. “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.”

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To track heart rate, Fitbit’s devices use photoplethysmography (PPG) technology to asses the rate of blood flow directly from a user’s wrist. In theory, these measurements can be used to determine a user’s heart rhythm. Fitbit’s algorithm will then analyze the rhythm for irregularities in the Fitbit Heart Study.

Should those who take part in the study get a notification about an irregular heart rhythm, they’ll be connected with a doctor for a virtual appointment at no cost to get more information. Participants may also get an electrocardiogram (ECG) patch in the mail at no cost to confirm the notification.

The study will support the clinical evaluation of the company’s PPG AFib algorithm, including whether it can successfully identify episodes of irregular heart rhythm.

People interested in joining the study must be in the United States and age 22 or older with a current Fitbit device that tracks heart rate. They include Fitbit IonicTM, Fitbit VersaTM family of smart watches, Fitbit Charge 3TM, Fitbit Charge 4TM and Fitbit Inspire HRTM.

Participant data will be kept confidential and will only be shared with study partners tied to the study. Visit the Fitbit Heart Study website for more details on the Fitbit Heart Study or to enroll.

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