Smartwatches, data and health

A watchful eye on change

Sir, – As a doctor practising in the field of anaesthesia, I spend a considerable amount of time looking at the physiologic data of strangers, interpreting and acting on it.

Like many in my profession, I’ve been fascinated to gain access to some of my own data from smartwatches and so I read Cailbhe Doherty’s article on the topic with interest (“Smartwatches track too much of our health data”, Opinion & Analysis, February 7th).

I envisage a more balanced “win-win” outcome from the pooling of such information than Dr Doherty does, but also think the ethical concerns may rapidly leave matters of life assurance in the ha’penny place.

Various old-fashioned songs and poems point out how a smile costs us nothing and may benefit others.


Similarly sharing records on parameters that many of us barely thought about until recently, such as heart rate during sleep, or may still be struggling to understand, such as the beat-to-beat variability therein, may lead to deep insights on wellness at literally no cost to the individual involved.

In a manner analogous to how supermarket loyalty cards can benefit vendor and purchaser – with more staff on at busy periods, goods restocked quicker, and so on – such data may lead to meaningful diagnoses.

Atrial fibrillation is now often enough detected by watches. Research published in JAMA network journals in 2021 (Jadin, et al) validated the concept of long Covid by demonstrating heart rate elevations in affected patients of a few beats per minute from their baseline up to 79 days after infection, with earlier normalisation of their step counts and sleep quality.

In Nature, Medicine Quer and colleagues showed in 2020 that smartwatches could with reasonable accuracy detect Covid-19, aiding earlier diagnosis. Such information can clearly be helpful to patients and to the broader society, and prior to the advent of wearables was unavailable. In the future, pandemics or individual cases of illness may be amenable to earlier intervention based on more advanced versions of such analyses.

The concern that one’s individual data may be used to alter insurance premiums is a reasonable one.

It might more fairly be portrayed as offering evidence-based, bespoke insurance quotes, with some getting cheaper rates as they are in fact at lower risk, and others at the opposite extreme.

Interpreted correctly the major gripe we may face as we get older may not be simply that we cannot get life assurance cover. It may be that this is how we were first notified of our impending mortality. – Yours, etc,



Co Cork.