Powerful but not perfect: An overview of health wearables

by Kaiser Permanente |
Person reading data on their wrist device

A pocket personal trainer. Microchips to track blood sugar. Baby thermometers — on tiny baby wrists. In health and wellness circles, these “wearables” are making a big splash in a small way.

What are wearables?

Wearables are small devices designed to work with your wardrobe and lifestyle. Often enabled by artificial intelligence, they can be smartwatches, headsets, and clothing and footwear embedded with sensors. Even “smart tattoos” are being developed. While wearables can look cool and trendy, they’re also a health tool used to track and deliver data about your body.

Each product can work in different ways. Some help you count steps or calories burned during a workout. Others track vital signs or medical conditions and may be able to send the information to your doctor.

The benefits of wearables

Wearables can’t replace doctor visits. But they’re good at putting your focus on building healthy behaviors.

Building health awareness

Fitness trackers were the first wearables that were quick to catch on with consumers. Devices like Fitbit® and Apple Watch® are useful for tracking and calculating your physical activity.1,2 Steps you’ve taken today? Check out this graph. Calories burned? Here’s an estimate. Resting heart rate? Looks good from here!

You can even find watches with built-in thermometers. They can note a rise in body temperature that might be a sign of a viral infection like the flu.

Since wearables offer real-time feedback, it’s easy to see the little things that add up to a healthy day. Plus, personal reminders and alerts can help you meet your goals — and motivate you to push past them.

Managing chronic conditions

Wearables offer new ways to support health beyond vital signs and fitness measures. Some medical wearables even provide pocket-sized solutions to help with ongoing conditions.

Glucose-monitoring wearables can help track your blood sugar (glucose) levels throughout the day. When prescribed by a doctor, they can even send the data to your care team. Certain medical wearables are also available over the counter. They can send data to apps on your smart device to alert you about possible issues to discuss with your doctor.

These devices are shaping the future of health care with services you could once only get at the doctor’s office. Before you get started with a medical-grade wearable, ask your doctor about what’s right for you.

Supporting medical research

Many clinical studies use wearable data to fuel research for improving overall health.

A recent Stanford University study looked at smartwatch data from more than 5,000 participants. The goal was to see if the data could help predict when someone might be getting sick with COVID-19. For people who got sick, the information showed signs of infection about 4 days before they reported symptoms.More research is needed. But promising results like these might pioneer more advanced wearables for consumers.

Also, the University of Michigan used Apple Watches to study underlying health conditions in over 7,000 people.4 Crowdsourced data like this is powerful stuff. It’s easy to gather and can come from all kinds of people, places, and populations. That brings better accuracy and health outcomes to research efforts.

4 considerations when using wearables

Notifications! Numbers! Achievements! Higher and higher and higher they go! Wearables create positive feedback that makes you feel great about your progress. But there’s a line drawn between using your device for a healthy purpose or depending on it too much.

Forget the "all or nothing" attitude

Wearable tech can offer an amazing, at-a-glance reminder of daily fitness goals. But it’s easy to get trapped in a mindset where achieving those goals becomes an unhealthy fixation. This can lead to stress and overexertion.

If you’re chasing a high step count, focus more on the steps you’ve completed rather than the ones you’re missing. When it comes to health, all progress is good progress. Even if your wearable doesn’t say so.

Know the limits

Wearables aren’t always 100% accurate. In one study, 7 wrist-worn fitness trackers miscalculated calories burned by over 20%.5

So, look at wearable data as a guide, and not as your only source of truth.

Complement, don’t substitute

Wearables don’t replace the services you get at medical facilities. When you don’t have access to screenings, lab tests, and physical exams you’re not getting the full picture of your health.

Don’t become too dependent on your wearable data. Remember that it’s a tool to use to add to the care you already get — not as a substitute for visiting a doctor.

Listen to your body

If your smartwatch says you’re doing great, but something still doesn’t feel right, listen to your body. Wearables can’t speak for the whole you — so it might be time to see your doctor.

Today’s wearables aren’t perfect. But the AI technology that powers many of them means they’re going to get smarter and better every year. And for many people, these devices work wonders by connecting them to health in a way that fits their lifestyle.

Want more ways to improve your health? Check out our healthy lifestyle programs.

1Kaiser Permanente does not endorse the medications or products mentioned. Any trade names listed are for easy identification only.

2Apple and Apple Watch are registered trademarks of Apple Inc.

3Matthew Hutson, The Dash to Adapt Smartwatches to Help Detect COVID Infections, Knowable Magazine, January 27, 2021.

4Jessica R. Golbus, MD, et al., Wearable Device Signals and Home Blood Pressure Data Across Age, Sex, Race, Ethnicity, and Clinical Phenotypes in the Michigan Predictive Activity & Clinical Trajectories in Health (MIPACT) Study: A Prospective, Community-Based Observational Study, The Lancet Digital Health, November 2021.

5Anna Shcherbina et al., Accuracy in Wrist-Worn, Sensor-Based Measurements of Heart Rate and Energy Expenditure in a Diverse Cohort, Journal of Personalized Medicine, 2017.