Fitbit collaborating with pharma giants Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pfizer

NEW YORK CITY—Fitbit and pharmaceutical giants Bristol-Myers Squibb and Pfizer have inked a multiyear partnership to accelerate the detection and diagnosis of atrial fibrillation to reduce the risk of life-threatening events such as stroke.

The collaboration will rely on Fitbit's afib detection software, which the tech giant plans to submit to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for regulatory review and approval.

Once its afib detection software receives FDA clearance, Fitbit will work with the BMS-Pfizer Alliance to provide those who are alerted by the wearable device of a potential heart rhythm irregularity with appropriate information to help encourage and inform discussions with their physicians, the companies said in a joint press release.

To be announced at the TIME 100 Health Summit in New York Thursday, the collaboration between the wearables company and the BMS-Pfizer Alliance will focus on developing digital tools and educational content to support people at increased risk for afib, notably those age 65 and older.

The collaboration signals Fitbit's deeper push into healthcare. In August, the company announced a new premium subscription service for users that offers coaching and personalized insights mined from the health data it collects from 27.3 million users. 

Fitbit executives say the company is uniquely positioned to help identify and support individuals at increased risk for afib as a result of its 24/7 continuous health-tracking capabilities and affordable devices.

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"We believe we can develop content to help bridge the gaps that exist in atrial fibrillation detection, encouraging people to visit their doctor for a prompt diagnosis and potentially reduce their risk of stroke," James Park, co-founder and CEO of Fitbit, said in a statement. "At Fitbit, we’re focused on making health more accessible and, through our efforts with the BMS-Pfizer Alliance, we have the potential to support earlier detection of atrial fibrillation, a potentially asymptomatic condition that affects millions of Americans."

Fitbit does not yet offer afib detection directly via the Fitbit app, but the company is continuing to develop and test its own algorithm for that capability, company executives said. The company did not provide a timeline for submitting its detection software to the FDA.

In June, Fitbit announced a partnership with third-party app Cardiogram to integrate its health-monitoring application with the tech giant's wearables. Cardiogram's detection technology has been clinically validated to detect signs of conditions like diabetes, hypertension, sleep apnea and afib. Fitbit's integration with Cardiogram's screening capabilities is part of their broader commitment to make users’ data accessible and useful, Fitbit executives said.

“We’re in a new era of healthcare, where we’re not only focused on developing treatments but also looking at the potential of technology and data to help patients learn more about their health,” Angela Hwang, group president of Pfizer Biopharmaceuticals Group, said in a statement. “We are excited about wearables and how our partnership with BMS and Fitbit may potentially help patients and physicians detect and understand heart rhythm irregularities.”

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Afib is the most common type of irregular heartbeat and is a significant risk factor for stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Approximately 8 million people in the U.S. are projected to be affected by afib in 2019, based on a 2013 study published in the American Journal of Cardiology. As the U.S. population ages, this number is expected to rise, as adults aged 65 and older are at an increased risk of developing the condition. 

Because afib can be asymptomatic, it can often go undetected, and some studies suggest that more than 25% of people who have the condition find out after they have a stroke, the CDC reports.

The use of wearable technology for health tracking continues to grow, but those who use wearables to track their heart rhythm may lack the education or guidance on what to do with the data gathered from their device. By collaborating with Fitbit, the BMS-Pfizer Alliance hopes to help fill that gap in education and support, executives said.

"These efforts with Fitbit exemplify not only our unwavering commitment to addressing the evolving needs of patients with atrial fibrillation but also our dedication to advancing care by embracing technology as a part of routine clinical practice," Joseph Eid, M.D., head of medical affairs at Bristol-Myers Squibb, said in a statement.

The BMS-Pfizer Alliance has launched several afib awareness efforts, including a multichannel effort last year to raise awareness about the connection between afib and stroke risk.