a small computing device clipped to a pocket to track movement

Fitbits for People with Multiple Sclerosis

I have written before about wearables. They are a nice toy, but in general they don’t really do anything particularly useful, at least not with the current technology. Batteries don’t last long enough. They just reproduce what your phone already does, just with a little more convenience. And the cost is just a relatively inelegant design and a hundred bucks out of your pocket.

But in special cases, there are some pretty cool things they can be used for. Last November, I wrote about their use by blue collar workers who have their hands busy. This week, I read about a great application in health care. And it uses a standard Fitbit with a specialized app that you can get from your health plan. The price is right, but what about the functionality? I think it works.

Drugmaker Biogen Idec is exploring ways to use fitness trackers to gather data from people who suffer from multiple sclerosis (MS), an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord.

The application collects the same kinds of tracking data that the normal Fitbit does – steps, heart rate, etc. And walking is much more important for MS patients to reduce symptoms and keep the disease at bay than it is for you and me to get some exercise (not that there is anything wrong with that either).

The device can also model more specific and patient-centered metrics such as the smoothness of the patient’s gait and their manual dexterity. These can provide advanced diagnosis for relapsing MS, which is more severe than the typical case.

The app can measure cognitive function and vision and it uses a video game format that makes it fun and encourages consistent use. Unlike the typical patient who gets monitored during two one-hour appointments a year, these patients are tracked 24/7/365. It isn’t just more data, it supports much more sophisticated analytics.

Patients can also opt in to upload their data to Patients and Me, a social network for patients to share treatments, for mutual support, and to prevent anyone from falling victim to snake oil salesmen or urban legends. Adding the data from the Fitbit makes it an order of magnitude more powerful for modeling MS patients. The huge sample size, even though it is not completely random or representative, is priceless. The end result is a significant reduction in medical costs, making it more than worthwhile for the provider to subsidize the hardware and the software.

My Take

This section seems kind of superfluous to me after my rave review above. It seems that it is a no-brainer. So I am going to go right to the call to action:

Your Turn

Do you have MS or know someone who does? I think all of us would be really interested in hearing about whether they would use it and find it valuable. Not just as a way to get a free Fitbit, but for the MS functionality.

Image credit: Ashstar01

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