mHealth devices hold promise but aren't perfect, reveals study

A new study on mHealth wearables that electronically monitor fitness and health-related activity shows a majority provide the needed tools for self-monitoring and goal setting as well as social support, rewards and activity data--which are all used in clinical behavioral interventions.

The robust nature of the behavior change techniques (BCT) proves the fitness and health-focused devices have broad applications for use in public health, rehabilitation and clinical settings, states a study, "Behavior Change Techniques Implemented in Electronic Lifestyle Activity Monitors: A Systematic Content Analysis," conducted by researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch Institute for Translational Sciences. The study was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

"From a public health perspective, electronic activity monitors hold promise for large-scale, cost-effective activity and energy balance interventions," notes the study. "The monitors may represent a medium by which these interventions could be translated for widespread use."

Such devices are gaining consumer adoption given their low-price and the increasing number of tools offered by vendors.

The mHealth monitoring device market, which began as basic pedometers and step counters for exercise buffs, has developed to feature full-fledged medical research tools. These tools play a role in healthcare initiatives, including monitoring treatment of patients suffering from Parkinson's disease and research on wearable biometric watch devices that tap changing patterns of scattered light for non-invasive glucose monitoring and pulse tracking.

A recent ON World report says such devices will create a $50 billion industry with 700 million wearable devices shipped in the global market by 2018. The report also predicts smartwatches, smart glasses and personal sensors will soon beat out the popular sports and fitness mHealth devices, and will account for two-thirds of that market revenue.

Yet the University of Texas study notes tracking and monitoring tools aren't perfect. Many are lacking some BCT elements associated with successful activity interventions, such as action planning and problem solving. The study also notes that monitor-based interventions may still be less powerful than standard face-to-face programs.

"However, they may also have a greater public health impact due to greater reach, adoption, implementation, and/or maintenance," acknowledges the study, which states future studies are needed to "investigate new types of electronic activity monitors and to test their feasibility, acceptability, and ultimately their public health impact."

"Little is known about how these monitors differ from one another, what options they provide in their apps, and how these options may impact their effectiveness. The low cost, wide reach, and apparent effectiveness of electronic activity monitors make them appealing for recommendation by practitioners, but the growing number of options precludes practitioners' ability to provide informed recommendations to patients," according to the study.

To learn more:
- read the study

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