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A patient recently told me she was working to improve her fitness and had noticed unusual spikes in her heart rate during exercise.
"Here, let me show you.” She brought out her phone and showed me an app that tracked her heart rate. The graph clearly showed jumps at occasional times during exercise. We diagnosed an abnormal heart rhythm and successfully treated it with medication. My patient continues to use the app to monitor her heart rate during exercise.
Health and fitness app usage grew by more than 330 percent in the past three years, making it an exciting time of empowerment in health care. Our patients aren’t the only ones using this technology. My healthcare colleagues and I use these same devices, and it’s exciting to talk to patients about how to use them and how the MedStar Health system is working to improve the future of such technology. Currently, our cardiologists use heart and fitness apps in two ways.
LISTEN: Dr. Taylor discusses the role of health and fitness apps in heart health in this Medical Intel podcast.
Two ways fitness apps help with heart health
1. Set goals and monitor fitness
Apps and wearables are especially useful when we work with patients to set fitness and dietary goals, such as:
- How many steps to take each day
- How much physical activity time they should have
- Upper and lower limits of certain foods for a heart-healthy diet
Once those goals are set, we can track progress. I find the apps can really help with accountability and motivation. Patients have told me it’s easier to put down that second helping of dessert if they know they’ll have to add it to a food diary app. Similarly, it’s easier to keep going down the right fitness path when you can see right on your smartphone that you’re moving in the right direction. Some apps can even serve as a kind of personal coach, suggesting adjustments, offering encouragement and celebrating successes.
2. Diagnose and monitor heart conditions
Along with setting goals and monitoring fitness, there’s also great promise in using these technologies to diagnose and manage heart problems. As illustrated by the patient I mentioned earlier, these apps can help us detect abnormal heart rhythms, such as atrial fibrillation (A-fib). The earlier we can diagnose and begin to treat problems like these, the better chance we have to prevent them from getting worse.
Apps also provide an opportunity for doctors to get a more complete picture of a person’s health, as they go about their daily lives. Let’s face it—many people only see their doctor once or twice a year, so there’s a lot of time in between when something might happen that we can’t detect during an office visit. For example, it’s not unusual for a person to have white-coat hypertension, or higher-than-normal blood pressure readings at the doctor’s office. By monitoring your blood pressure at home with a blood pressure cuff connected via Bluetooth technology, we can get a more accurate record of your daily measurements and better tailor your blood pressure medication.
A more complex example would be today’s pacemakers, which are wired with special apps to monitor fluid status. So even before a patient can feel the effects of fluid retention, the pacemaker will warn us so we can take action. These are just a few ways for how we currently use these apps and wearables to help us monitor heart health, but their future potential is enormous.
Protect your privacy
As our lives continue to become more digital, we must be aware of privacy concerns and acknowledge, identify and mitigate potential risks.
Just as you wouldn’t speak your personal health information to just anyone, you shouldn’t input it into just any health or fitness app. Before you download an app, read the disclaimer so you understand how your information will be used, including whether it will be shared with third-party sites.
If you’re transmitting sensitive health information to your healthcare provider, make sure they use a secure portal. Finally, safeguard your personal devices by updating software and ensuring security patches are in place. Device manufacturers are increasingly attentive to the risks of hacking and data breaches and are learning to prevent them, but it’s up to all of us to protect our personal information.
How we’re shaping the future of healthcare apps
We’re always seeking ways to leverage our modern digital world for better and more efficient care. In fact, one such app developed by MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute’s interventional cardiology director, Dr. Lowell F. Satler, allows real-time interactions between doctors and referring practitioners to use their smartphones to rapidly—and securely—transmit data to get heart attack patients faster treatment.
We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the clinical potential of health and fitness apps for heart care. Talk to your doctor about how these devices can help you take charge of your heart health or manage an existing heart condition.