Researchers at the California-based Scripps Research Translational Institute reviewed deidentified data from 200,000 Fitbit users in five states and found that they were able to use data like rising heart rates and changes in sleep patterns to predict flu outbreaks in real-time, according to CNN.
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Researchers calculated the proportion of users falling above set thresholds for average heart rate and sleep duration and compared this data to weekly flu rates determined by the CDC to predict flu outbreaks in real time.
The finding shows the potential for the soon-to-be Alphabet-owned brand to predict disease outbreaks — which could open an opportunity to propel Google-sister company Verily’s population health efforts:
- The ability to predict flu outbreaks would not only help prevent the hundreds of thousands of flu-related deaths in the US, but also reel back massive spending on hospitalizations and outpatient visits. With the flu affecting an estimated 35.5 million and driving 490,600 hospitalizations in the US in the 2018-2019 flu season alone, per the CDC, the ability to predict outbreaks would be welcomed by an already overburdened healthcare system. And the potential savings could be significant: In the 2015-2016 flu season in the US, there was an estimated $10.4 billion in direct costs for adult hospitalizations and outpatient visits, according to CNBC.
- And should Alphabet get the regulatory go-ahead for its Fitbit purchase, the potential to predict disease outbreaks would be a huge value-add to Verily’s population health efforts. Verily already has an established presence in the population health space, having launched major research partnerships with a slew of health systems in 2019. And the real-time flu prediction finding could signal a huge opportunity for Verily to collaborate with Fitbit: For example, we could see Verily integrate health data collected from Fitbit users into its Project Baseline initiative, which is aimed at developing technologies to help researchers architect a map of human health and gain a deeper understanding of prevalent conditions like Parkinson’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel disease — which are conditions Verily is currently working to address.
While promising, the impact of the finding could be lessened due to the limited nature of the data collected — and Alphabet will need to be clear about its data-sharing policies or risk losing more consumer trust if it seeks a partner for future Fitbit endeavors.
- It may be hard for population health projects leveraging real-time wearable data to gather up a representative pool of users. Researchers reviewed the deidentified data of 200,000 Fitbit users from five states — 47,248 of whom wore the device consistently over the study period — but Fitbit users aren’t necessarily representative of the general population: For example, US consumers who use wearables skew younger and tend to have higher incomes, as eMarketer noted in its Wearables 2019 report, which means there are likely gaps missing in the data collected. Hence, the implications of the real-time flu prediction finding could be muted when extrapolating this data nationwide.
- Additionally, the finding raises questions over the data-sharing policies of Fitbit and parent-company Alphabet. Google recently found itself in hot water over data-sharing concerns stemming from its involvement in the Project Nightingale initiative. So, to prevent the risk of losing more consumer trust in the brand — and its growing list of subsidiaries and sister companies — it may be wise for Alphabet to be explicitly clear about its data-sharing policies and how any shared data may be used in potential research collaborations and partnerships in the future.
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