As smartwatches and other wearable sensors become more reliable and sophisticated, the data they provide can empower individuals to improve their health choices. Despite this, questions remain about their value as a complement to healthcare providers.

Wearable sensors are intended to be unobtrusive, reasonably priced data collection devices worn for long periods of time. The classic wearable sensors, pedometers, were some of the first to introduce this concept to the general market. Today they come in several different form factors, with smartwatches being the leading product on the market by a considerable margin. Smartwatches are rapidly adding sensors as they look to capture additional market share, which is making them more interesting from a medical standpoint.

The sensors being used for smartwatches are of lower quality than most clinical tools, but many models, including the Apple Watch, have been cleared by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as class II medical devices. The most attractive feature of these wearables is their almost constant collection of data, which can help identify deterioration over time or intermittent health problems. The irregular rhythm notifications that Apple has implemented to identify atrial fibrillation are an excellent example of this. Wearable sensors may also allow patients to resume their normal activities while benefitting from some remote observation.

While these increases in personal data and pattern recognition are an impressive feat, it is important to note that they do not constitute a medical diagnosis. The companies that produce each device are careful to state that these tools are only intended to inform patients and potentially healthcare providers, in part due to liability concerns. Informed healthcare decisions require expertise in addition to data, and the novelty of these devices does not change that fact. Many existing clinical tests that provide a positive result need to be examined by doctors in context to establish a positive diagnosis due to the risk of false positives.

Wearable devices are useful tools for users to track personal trends and initiate conversations with a healthcare provider. This market is expected to continue to grow in the near future as new features and useful sensors are added. Any test results or evaluations, however, will still need to be confirmed by a medical professional for the foreseeable future.