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The last couple of years has seen a surge in the development of fitness apps and trackers for smartphone users, with over 70% of American’s using a fitness app on a daily basis. Doctors are now taking these apps one step further by utilising fitness trackers to aid them in better understanding the health of their patients.

Biogen Idec, a global biotechnology company based in Massachusetts, are the developers and marketers behind Tecfidera, a blockbuster MS drug. The company have recently taken the plunge into the world of fitness trackers, using apps such as FitBit to gather data on MS sufferers.

FitBit is a wireless wearable activity tracker which measures physical data of the wearer, such as the number of steps walked, quality of sleep etc. Already accountable for 70% of sales within the fitness-tracker market, the app is already a big hit with doctors using it as a means of tracking their patients’ wellbeing. Biogen Idec gave away 250 of the devices last spring to MS patients in the US, with the aim of gathering data to help map out the disease’s progression, by monitoring and analysing the speed and duration with which patients using the app walk each day.

According to the National Institute of Health, roughly $103 million of its budget will be spent on MS research in 2015.

Researchers at Biogen are not the only ones to embrace fitness trackers as a means of furthering patient data collection and interaction. Analysts at Northwestern University, which has two campuses in Illinois, are using FitBits to survey the physical activity of patients who have recently undergone spinal surgery in an attempt to predict the patient’s recovery time.

Funded by the International Spinal Study Group, the research will focus on those who have undergone minimally-invasive spine surgery for degenerative diseases and deformities. Patients will wear the FitBit for 4 weeks prior to their surgery and six months after.

Dr Zachary Smith, Northwestern Assistant Professor and Principal Investigator, told Vivify Health: “An activity monitor allows us to have an objective, numerically extract and continually measure activity. This can show exactly how much function a patient has regained and, critically, when and if it occurs during the recovery period. This may allow us to predict when a patient will be back to 50% activity, 100% activity, or even 200% activity in the future.

“It appears that almost all patients go through a four – to – six week period where their activity is decreased. Just over a month out from many surgeries, they get back to their pre-operative level. Then they slowly continue to climb to new levels of activity that they could never have reached before.”

Surgeons already have an understanding of the impact spinal surgery has on patients, but this new data will help them to better predict recovery times.

FitBits could even be used in the future to prevent heart attacks. During the DPharma Conference in London, Carol Maguire, Director of Clinical Research in the Division of Cardiology at the University of San Francisco, announced the Health eHeart project. This will see at least 1 million people around the world using their FitBit app to gather data which can then be used by doctors to attempt to pick up early warning signs of an impending heart attack.

“The idea is to identify a predictive algorithm, to be able to alert people that they are about to have a heart attack,” claims Maguire. This data will then be compiled into a database, allowing doctors of individual patients to predict if and when a heart attack or sudden cardiac death might occur.

“Using the app we will be able to track millions of people’s behaviour. We know that there is some kind of physiological event that occurs in a person’s body before they actually experience the symptoms of having a heart attack, and we’re hoping to be able to identify that.”

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