Unreliable wearable data puts physicians in a bind

wearable smartwatch
Most fitness trackers don't accurately measure calories burned, adding to concerns about the clinical utility of wearables.

A new study shows wearable fitness trackers provide inaccurate measurements, but that’s not stopping patients from asking physicians to integrate that data into their medical care.

Researchers at Stanford reviewed seven wearable fitness trackers, ranging from the Apple Watch to the Fitbit, evaluating each device’s ability to measure heart rate and calories burned. Although most devices were generally more accurate at measuring heart rate, all seven achieved error rates of 20% or more when it came to measuring calories burned, according to the results published in the Journal of Personalized Medicine.

Rlated: Most mHealth apps aren't effective for chronic conditions

For the researchers, it highlighted the limitations surrounding wearable devices and their ability to accurately measure vital signs. The authors also called for greater transparency among device manufacturers, adding that “consistent release of validation data” would help integrate devices into the clinical environment.

Previous research has called into question the impact that wearables have on physical activity and weight loss. Mobile health apps have also been criticized for their lack of clinical utility for patients with chronic conditions.  

Related: Wearables unlikely to increase physical activity

This transparency is particularly important as more patients are bringing data from their mobile devices to their physician or specialist, cardiologist Euan Ashley, associate professor of medicine at the Stanford University Medical Center and Stanford Hospital and Clinics and an author of the study, told NPR.

“They're essentially asking us to digest the data and offer advice about how to avoid cardiovascular disease,” he said.

Related: Getting useful data from wearables still a challenge for doctors

The study’s findings echo some of the misgivings physicians have about data from wearables—information that has little use in the clinical environment. But the American Medical Association has urged physicians to get more involved with mHealth development to ensure new apps are useful for clinicians.