Health monitoring apps are a popular way of tracking wellness because of how they seem to provide concrete evidence about the effects of your diet and routine. The rise of wearables that come with health tracking technology had made it easier than ever before to collect data about your health. Monitoring apps can analyse this data to provide a picture of your overall health and recommend lifestyle changes based on what it finds.
But how accurate are these new health monitoring apps? Is it a good idea for consumers to rely on wearable and fitness trackers for health data — or are they being misled?
As Good as the Data You Give It
There are a huge variety of health monitoring apps available on the app store. Some are proprietary, and draw from biometric data collected by wearable devices that keep track of heart rate, breathing and blood pressure. Others are designed to encourage health habits — like mental health apps that that remind users to drink water, eat enough food and perform basic self-care.
Many of these apps analyse data to provide health recommendations for end-users. In some cases, health monitoring apps can struggle to provide good advice simply because the data they collect isn’t great — and in these cases, doctors worry they might do more harm than good.
Sleep tracking apps, for example, suffer from difficulties in data collection. These apps are decent at encouraging good sleep habits and detecting conditions like sleep apnea, but seem to struggle with identifying which phase of sleep a user is in. Sleep doctors tend to agree that these apps are not a substitute for a sleep study, and that the data they provide is more often wrong than it is right. This can mislead users about how well they’re sleeping. For what it’s worth, sleep is complicated and hard to track. But health wearables can also struggle to record simpler kinds of health data. The popular fitness wearable line Fitbit, for example, monitors and tracks your heart rate. This can be useful information if you’re a runner or fitness nut that wants to track improvements in things like resting heart rate over time.
But if you suffer from arrhythmia — an inconsistent heartbeat that may lead to heart disease — the app won’t be able to detect it. In fact, your Fitbit might not report the correct heart rate at all. In a case like this, the fitness tracker app will work fine, but it will be tracking and analysing incorrect data — which could be useless or misleading. No Fitbit is a medical device, and it would be unreasonable to expect one to work as a cardiogram. And Fitbit as a company seems to consider the inability to detect arrhythmia a serious blind-spot — the company is already working on a new Fitbit that should be able to detect irregular heartbeats. For the moment, however, the heart rate data that Fitbits collect may still mislead users with heart conditions.
Are Health Monitoring Apps Accurate Enough to Trust?
Doctors tend to agree that health monitoring apps aren’t replacements for medical care — even if the data is accurate, an app can’t be your therapist or personal trainer.
Other health monitoring apps avoid the problem of bad data collection by focusing in on specific causes which may damage your health. One example is the Noise app available on the Apple Watch. The app is designed to alert users to noise levels above 80 dB, which could help prevent noise-induced hearing loss — one of the most common types of hearing loss, and the most likely to affect young people and children.
The tech is new and consumers haven’t had much time to test it yet. But the Noise app is an interesting example of how health monitoring apps are moving away from holistic, all-in-one monitoring solutions, to more niche — and possibly more accurate — applications.
The Good and Bad of Health Monitoring Apps
Health monitoring apps aren’t regulated by any governing body. These apps can provide interesting information for health nuts, but they probably shouldn’t be relied upon for medical advice, or by anyone that needs to track a special medical condition. Individual apps that track specific information — like background noise levels — may be more accurate and universally useful. In the future, as tech improves, health monitoring apps may become a reliable way to keep tabs on your health. For now, however, they aren’t a complete health-tracking solution.