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Time will tell

How smart are watches when it comes to heart health?

Article Author: Kristi Tucker

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Smartwatches are everywhere these days, and many tout capabilities far beyond telling you the time and date. For fitness and health tracking, their abilities range from simply counting your daily steps to measuring heart rhythm and more. If your focus is on heart health, you may be asking, "Are they worth the investment?"

Matthew McKillop, MD, medical director of the Electrophysiology Program with Baptist Heart Specialists, is a believer in the benefits wearable technology can bring. "For people who have heart issues, these devices have proven to be useful. For the average population, especially the aging population, they can be valuable for screening."

Some of the heart-healthy tools smartwatches may offer include:

  • Step counter: "It's a helpful reminder to patients to be active. With cardiovascular health, the more active patients are, the better their outcomes," said Dr. McKillop.
  • Abnormal heart rhythm detection: The most common notification offered by many wearables is for atrial fibrillation (Afib), or an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia). "We used to only pick up Afib when looking at something else, or if patients had symptoms," said Dr. McKillop. "Today's smart technology tools are remarkable for helping patients identify their own arrhythmia, even in cases where they are asymptomatic. This helps us to begin management of the potential risks these arrhythmias bring, like stroke, before they become a problem."
  • Heart rate monitoring: "This can be an initial detection of a potential arrhythmia that can be further confirmed by the device's ability to record an electrocardiogram (ECG). This screening tool helps patients get more information and can even alert their physician that their heart rates are fluctuating," said McKillop.
  • Oxygen saturation measurement: "This indicates how much oxygen is in your blood and whether your body is oxygenating correctly through your lungs. For patients who have issues with lung disease, this may be helpful information to relay to their providers. It also may help identify new problems with oxygenation while sleeping, like obstructive sleep apnea," said McKillop.
  • Hard fall notification: Dr. McKillop said, "This option is helpful for patients who are older and concerned about falling. It's another layer of security. I've seen instances in my own practice where patients have fallen as a result of arrhythmia, and the device alerted emergency services." Bonus: this benefit isn't just limited to heart health.
  • Blood pressure monitoring: "Most watches don't record blood pressure, but sync to blood pressure cuffs that can. They can also serve as an archive for those measurements. For patients with hypertension, bringing a daily record of their readings to the physician helps us properly manage blood pressure," said Dr. McKillop. He explained that a singular result taken during an office visit could be artificially high due to "white coat syndrome" (the tendency to develop high blood pressure around doctors). "A running log of blood pressure readings in their normal circumstances is extremely valuable in making decisions about treatment."

Enhancement, not replacement

The devices are not yet advanced enough to monitor for heart attacks, strokes or heart failure, but Dr. McKillop said they could provide an early warning for health conditions that could lead to these serious events, and may help get patients into treatment before they occur.

He also cautioned that smartwatches should not replace your physician.

"Wearable devices are a gateway technology for getting patients into proper medical evaluation and care," he said. "Today's devices are sophisticated enough that if they are alerting the patient to a problem, it should be investigated by a health care professional."

McKillop recommended that if you're considering a smartwatch to help monitor your heart health, talk with your physician about the various options, what you hope to achieve and how you can work together to evaluate the information it provides. He also recommended getting one that has EKG capability for the best monitoring.

To hear more about wearable devices from Dr. McKillop, listen to his podcast.

Baptist Heart Hospital is Northeast Florida's only freestanding hospital for heart and vascular care. Baptist Heart Specialists provide patients with a range of services and expertise in heart care. To schedule an appointment, call 904.720.0799.

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