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In a year when we've all been laser focused on avoiding sickness, gifting your loved ones personal health technology devices might seem like a great idea.

Whether it's monitoring sleep cycles, blood pressure, heart rate, weight, or appetite, more and more gadgets are promising to give people detailed insights into their daily health. But while well-intended, such devices aren't one size fits all.

Here are some considerations to mull over before you make your purchase.

Who is the recipient?

Think about how it will make your recipient feel. If you're gifting a personal health technology device that tracks exercise, resting heart rate, or blood pressure to someone who is overweight, chronically ill, or has a disability, they may not take it well. Likewise, if someone is already reluctant to go to the doctor, it's probably not a good idea to give them something they can use as an extra excuse to avoid seeking true medical care. On the other hand, if you know someone who wants to be active but has trouble getting motivated or someone who is health conscious and looking to take an extra step towards monitoring their health, such a gift may just score a home run! And for those loved ones with chronic conditions who are engaged in managing their conditions, a monitoring device may add additional insights and motivation.

How will the device be used?

When considering wearable devices that connect to emergency services, Summit CityMD cardiologist Dr. Francesco Santoni-Rugiu recommends using common sense. "If used accurately in the right patient population, such as a frail or elderly person, or someone who already has a diagnosis of something like arrhythmia, it could be a wonderful extension of care."

If you are gifting such devices, Dr. Santoni-Rugiu also suggests that you make sure there is someone who is "IT savvy" to set it up. This should include:

  • Teaching them how to use the device
  • Disabling irrelevant features that could confuse the recipient
  • Turning on a one-touch call to 911 or an emergency contact number so that it replaces a "fall alert" system, if available

If a diagnosed patient is adding a personal health technology device to their home routine, it's a good idea that they discuss it with their physician, Dr. Santoni-Rugiu adds.

How accurate is the technology?

Devices vary in their accuracy and you should research the quality of information that collected and reported.  As technology has advanced, the accuracy of devices such as fitness trackers has improved greatly in recent years.  

Summit CityMD pulmonologist and sleep expert  Dr. Vijay "Vicky" Seelall says that the results of many personal health devices, like sleep trackers, aren't always on point. "You can fool the technology about 50 percent of the time."

In general, these devices use older technology. For cutting-edge, biomedical tech, you need to visit your physicians.  A gadget can't and shouldn't replace them. Additionally, nothing except an actual sleep study can tell you the sleep stage that you're in. “Most personal sleep trackers provide a best guess based on movement and heart-rate variability,” Dr. Seelall says.

In terms of measuring oxygen levels, both Dr. Santoni-Rugiu and Dr. Seelall say devices like a pulse oximeter are useful if you're worried about dips (for instance, if you have COVID-19). But "it's not going to diagnose your sleep apnea or insomnia," Dr. Seelall notes.

That's not to say that she doesn't integrate them into her practice. Like Dr. Santoni-Rugiu, she prefers to see patients incorporate personal health technology into their daily routines rather than replace their physicians with them altogether.

Will it cause anxiety?

Next-gen personal health technology devices often promise to do so many things that it's easy to feel overwhelmed by all the data. "Having more fragmented data doesn't mean it's useful information," Dr. Seelall says. "You can have all the numbers, but it's not telling you the whole story."

Dr. Santoni-Rugiu agrees, saying that the sheer amount of information can lead to "worried well syndrome." In other words, a susceptible patient won't believe that they're not ill when their watch wakes them up at night to tell them that their heart is beating too slowly.

Dr. Seelall often sees the opposite effect in her practice with orthosomnia, where patients become convinced there is such a thing as "perfect sleep," she says. "Then they focus so much on the quest for perfect sleep using these devices, that they don't sleep."

As the world becomes “smarter”, health apps and personal medical devices are growing in popularity, and they can be good tools for tracking and taking some control over your own health. However, how you use the information is as important as what information the devices are giving you. So, if you do decide to add a personal technology device to your shopping list, follow the experts’ advice above and, as Dr. Santoni-Rugiu says, "Disable features that contribute to anxiety and cater them carefully to the individual."  Finally, remember to use the devices to augment care you receive, not to replace the care you receive from your health care providers.

How will it help?

While they can’t replace someone’s doctor, plenty of devices do assist people with general health and well-being on a daily basis. Here are some to consider:

  • Step-trackers are motivating because they give people a goal to work towards. Pair them with wireless earbuds or headphones and you’ll likely make a walker or runner very happy.
  • Light-therapy lamps are inexpensive and effective for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder.
  • Posture correctors, which vibrate when you slump, are especially helpful right now when people are spending a lot of time on the computer.
  • Bluetooth blood pressure cuffs and digital pulse oximeters are painless ways for people to monitor themselves when they already know or suspect they have a condition.

So in addition to keeping your family and friends safer by not seeing them for the holidays, you can also gift them better health by sending them personal medical technology devices.