Fitbit researching how to measure blood pressure with its smartwatches

In April, Google-owned Fitbit opened a study to Fitbit Sense owners in the USto investigate how pulse arrival time (PAT) can be used to measure blood pressure. Fitbit devices already measure heart rate via a sensor over the wrist, and PAT takes a look at how quickly a pulse of blood reaches the wrist after each heartbeat. Fitbit says that PAT can be correlated with blood pressure, but the company is still figuring out the best way to achieve this with real-world data from average Fitbit users.

Partially spurred by the pandemic, people have been exercising at home more frequently, and generally thinking about their health. This has created a significant opportunity for fitness apps and services, and manufacturers of smartwatches like Apple, Fitbit, and others. Accessible and user-friendly AI in smartphones, smartwatches and other consumer electronics have the potential to revolutionize medicine for both patients and medical professionals.

With nearly half of Americans suffering from high blood pressure, according to the CDC, it’s not only a smart business move for Fitbit to examine how it can help measure this vital sign, but it’s also something that could give users earlier indication that they should seek medical care for hypertension. Shelten Yuen, the principal scientist at Fitbit leading the study, said in a statement that better tracking of hypertension in some individuals could “help avoid preventable deaths from heart disease and stroke.”

Fitbit is not alone in this pursuit. The Apple Watch 6 can read blood oxygen levels (on top of heart rhythm and rate), and Samsung’s Galaxy Watch3 and Galaxy Watch Active2 can already monitor blood pressure after being calibrated with a traditional blood pressure measuring cuff. Apple is now also reportedly examining how to track blood sugar levels, blood alcohol levels, and blood pressure for its future Apple Watches.  Not only are the smartwatch industry’s efforts less invasive than current mainstream methods, they also generate a continuous stream of data compared to the conventional “spot check” at a doctor’s office. This consistent data flow will undoubtedly be more valuable to both consumers and doctors.

Developing a way to measure blood pressure without any additional cuff could have an immediate impact on the lives of many Americans. According to Interpret’s New Media Measure®, 12% of Fitbit owners in the US are concerned about their inactive lifestyle and possible hypertension (slightly more than those with an Apple Watch). In the not-too-distant future, smartwatches may give users near-complete medical overviews with a quick glance at the wrist and alert them to any serious conditions. “It will be interesting to see just how far Fitbit and Apple are willing to go to pursue opportunities in medical technology. Currently, their smartwatches are a wellness play, but becoming a 510(K)-certified product entails overcoming a higher regulation hurdle, and ultimately brings more medical liability risks. Apple, Fitbit, and others in the space will have to convince a discerning medical community first,” noted Harry Wang, Senior Vice President at Interpret.