This content is part of the Essential Guide: Wearable health technology in medical and consumer arenas
Get started Bring yourself up to speed with our introductory content.

Wearable heart rate monitors enter the consumer mainstream

Wearable heart rate monitors are growing in availability to patients. Are providers ready to use all of the data made available by them?

When I exercise at the gym or go out for a run, I, like many others, use a wearable heart rate monitor so I have quantifiable data on my exertion and my fitness level. Healthcare technology vendors have taken notice of people's desire to measure their activity. Heart rate monitors aren't just for cardiologists anymore: They're being incorporated into consumer devices such as watches, wearable fitness trackers, bracelets and even smartphones.

Types of wearable heart rate monitors

The Adidas Smart Run is a GPS-enabled running watch that has a built-in heart rate monitor for the athletes who want to avoid wearing a chest strap to track heart rate. The Samsung Galaxy S5 smartphone has a built-in heart rate monitor. The Samsung Gear Fit is a wrist-worn fitness tracker that has a color screen and a continuous heart rate monitor.

Adidas Smart Run watch with GPS for running
Adidas Smart Run wearable device

Is the medical community ready to deal with all the data supplied by wearable heart rate monitors? Let's take a look at some common use cases where continuous heart rate monitoring information can provide some meaningful health information about a person.

How wearable heart rate monitors help you sleep

When people sleep, our bodies are supposed to rest. This includes our heart, which is why the average person's heart rate will go down during sleep. But how low does it go? How low should it go? Could elevations or fluctuations in heart rate possibly detect a medical condition such as obstructive sleep apnea? Heart rate readings during sleep could provide insights on patients who are at risk of having a heart attack. Heart attacks are five to six times more common during the hours of 1-5 a.m. As we start collecting continuous heart rate monitoring data from patients who are sleeping, the wealth of information will overwhelm the medical community unless we are prepared to process it in a meaningful way.

Wearables to track heart rate during exercise

Doctor discusses heart rate monitors

In addition to detecting potential heart attacks in the middle of the night, wearable heart rate monitors can help people exercise safely and effectively. This is why many professional athletes use heart rate monitors as a part of their training. Heart rate information during exercise allows us to quantify our level of exertion and measure our body's capacity to work and recover from workouts. Over time, as people become more physically fit, they are able to do the same strenuous activity at a lower heart rate. Athletes commonly have low resting heart rates because their bodies have adapted to a higher level of cardiovascular fitness.

Using wearables to detect heart disease and stroke

There are many people walking around with undiagnosed heart disease who have no idea they may suffer a heart attack at any moment. With the help of a wearable heart rate monitor, patients who are unaware of their cardiovascular risk can start detecting patterns that may suggest they're at risk for a heart attack or stroke.

Some wearable heart rate monitors are sensitive and accurate enough to detect abnormal beating patterns or arrhythmias. However, if any manufacturer chooses to assert such a claim, then their gadget would get classified as a medical device and would have to undergo FDA regulatory scrutiny. So, I doubt most manufacturers will even hint their devices are that accurate. But, these devices can still have something significant to offer because patients who are aware of their risk for heart disease may be more likely to seek medical care. By receiving a proper diagnosis and workup, they may be placed on preventative therapies that may significantly reduce their risk of having a heart attack or stroke.

So is the world ready for wearable heart rate monitors? Some have predicted that 2014 will be the year of the wearable gadgets. Wearables like activity trackers have already gained tremendous popularity. The next evolution in this space involves measuring other biometrics beyond steps and movement. The continuous measurement of heart rates will only fuel the big data challenge that the medical community is facing. However, intelligent algorithms that can interpret heart rate information will provide insights that may ultimately transform healthcare and disease prevention strategies.

About the author:
Joseph Kim is a physician technologist who has a passion for leveraging health IT to improve public health. Dr. Kim is the founder of and is an active social media specialist. Let us know what you think about the story; email [email protected] or contact @SearchHealthIT on Twitter.

Next Steps

Read how a health IT pro uses a wearable fitness device

Medtech market: How to choose a heart rate monitor (HRM) and other wearable devices

The next big thing in the wearables device market

Dig Deeper on Internet of Things (IoT) in Healthcare