Fitbit launches broad virtual AFib study using all its heart-tracking devices

Fitbit plans to cast a broad, digital net to catch the signs of irregular heart rhythms using its myriad fitness trackers.

The large-scale, virtual clinical study will form a key part of the company’s efforts aimed at detecting atrial fibrillation and reducing the risk of stroke, as it looks to compete with heartbeat-tracking and ECG-enabled consumer wearables such as the Apple Watch.

But instead of testing one product, the Fitbit Heart Study plans to use several—including all of its current exercise trackers and smartwatches that can measure heart rate—to potentially enroll hundreds of thousands of people. The trial’s results will serve as the foundation for the company’s regulatory submissions to the FDA and overseas.

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With days-long batteries and 24/7 pulse rate tracking, Fitbit hopes its devices will lead to extended assessments of heart rhythms, including while people are sleeping—which the company says is the ideal way to spot intermittent arrhythmias.  

The study is open to just about any adult with one of
the company's heart rate-tracking devices. (Fitbit)

The trackers use light-based technology known as photoplethysmography to measure the rate of blood flow through a person’s wrist. The study will test an algorithm that translates this data into a heart rhythm and searches for signs of atrial fibrillation, which affects over 30 million people globally and shows no symptoms in many cases.

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If detected, participants in the trial will receive a notification and be connected with a doctor for a virtual appointment. They may also receive a wearable electrocardiogram patch through the mail to confirm the irregular heart rhythm. 

Separately, Fitbit is developing its own integrated electrocardiogram features aimed at AFib—and said that it has completed a clinical trial and plans to seek clearance from the FDA.

The company teamed up with Pfizer and Bristol Myers Squibb last year to help develop its arrhythmia detection algorithms and hardware, and plans to continue working with the drugmakers to create content informing users of the potential risks of stroke and possible care options.

Around the same time last November, Google made a $2.1 billion offer to acquire Fitbit, but the deal is still under federal review due in part to the large amounts of personal health data involved. The tech giant described the move as a way to invest in its own smartwatch-focused offerings, which have struggled over the years to gain a large market share compared to Apple.