RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
There are many other digital devices on the market that claim they can improve your health. Wearable technology can track your fitness, your blood pressure, your heart rate. But can all this tracking actually lead to cheaper and better health care? Reporter Angus Chen tried to find out.
ANGUS CHEN, BYLINE: Consumer electronics have gone way beyond Fitbits and activity trackers. Take, for example, the Smart Bed made by Sleep Number. The company's VP of science, Pete Bils, says it has sensors throughout the mattress that track your breathing, movements and heart activity while you sleep.
PETE BILS: We can actually see changes in sleep that might represent a signature of a bigger health issue - for instance, arrhythmias or a heart attack.
CHEN: The data gets sent to your smartphone, and if the bed notices something is off, Bils says you could alert your doctor to take a closer look. That could help people discover underlying conditions like sleep apnea. There aren't any studies yet showing this technology is impacting people's health, but companies are eager to start measuring everything. There's a pillow that collects data while you cuddle it, a fork that monitors how fast you're eating, an automatic blood pressure cuff that sends data to your phone.
JOSEPH KVEDAR: There's definitely an explosion of these things.
CHEN: Dr. Joseph Kvedar is the vice president for connected health at Partners HealthCare and a professor at Harvard Medical School. He thinks that these personal health devices might be key to changing the way we get our health care.
KVEDAR: We're transitioning to a world where everything is preventative, everything is proactive and we measure everything and we react to it before you get sick.
CHEN: The idea is that with a range of devices, monitoring things like blood pressure, weight, activity and sleep, you'd get treated for health issues earlier and faster. Eventually, this data could go directly to your health care provider.
KVEDAR: The pharmacist could manage certain things. You might get a nurse practitioner that makes some prescribing decisions.
CHEN: Kvedar says that would save time and money. And with devices figuring out when you might have a health issue, this system might keep people healthier, too.
LUKASZ PIWEK: That's kind of the Holy Grail for the health care, right? But in practical sense, implementation of this is still quite problematic.
CHEN: Lukasz Piwek is a data scientist at the University of Bath in the U.K. He says a big problem with these devices is people don't use them consistently. And he says there's no quality control. Some devices can give accurate data, but some just aren't reliable. That makes doctors hesitant to use them.
PIWEK: Clinicians can get the wrong information from this device if they are going to use it for any diagnosis or prescription.
CHEN: And with so many devices gathering so much data, privacy is also an issue. Information collected by medical professionals and FDA-approved devices are protected under federal law, but data from consumer electronics aren't. Kvedar says that could be a problem for some consumers.
KVEDAR: We make decisions to trade privacy for things all the time. Is consumer health different? Is there this dark world where your insurer might hold something against you?
CHEN: He says these are the questions we now have to grapple with because the technology is here, and it's already in use. For NPR News, I'm Angus Chen.
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