Fitbit creates research library with Fitabase, publishes results of corporate wellness study

By Heather Mack
Share

There may be plenty of skepticism about how much wearable activity trackers actually improve health, but Fitbit is offering a robust set of data to counter that argument. While the leading activity wearable maker was recently used as a blanket term for all such devices in headlines following a JAMA article that posited wearables actually hindered weight loss, Fitbit has upped its game in validating its usefulness by announcing its new research library and the results of a corporate wellness study.

The Fitabase Research Library, compiled by Fitbit’s data-crunching and research facilitation partner Fitabase, puts every single research study or trial that used Fitbit in one place. Since partnering with Fitbit in 2012, Fitabase has been helping researchers develop studies with Fitbit’s full range of consumer wearable devices. Along the way, researchers often ask them for examples of studies similar to theirs.

“People come in and ask if there is something similar to what they are working on to use as reference, and in most of those cases, we can go to those internal logs and send a link. That’s great for a one-off, but the people who are contacting us are only a small part of the broader community of everyone who is interested in research with wearables,” Ernesto Ramirez, director of research and development at Fitabase told MobiHealthNews in an interview.

The library currently has 163 different published studies that mention using a Fitbit (or a few of them) as part of their study design. The pace of research using the wearables has been accelerating every year, Ramirez said, posing what Fitabase believed was a need for a comprehensive library.

“So we wanted to make it a public resource where anyone who wants to explore Fitbit research can have a one-stop shop. It’s meant to be a library down the street, and it will continue to grow as people do more research.”

Not just any study can get in – it has to be peer-reviewed and published first, Ramirez said.

“We put the emphasis on peer review,” he said. “There are a lot of things that are out there that aren’t going into the library. I passed up at least 20 or 30 masters’ thesis or dissertations. They won’t be in there now, but I hope that they eventually become research articles and can be included in the library.”

Ramirez said the library aims to be proof of the rigorous research and development that goes into studies using Fitbit, as well as the devices themselves.

“We hope it’s a resource used not just be researchers, but also but also by journalists, so misinterpretation may be reduced,” he said.

On the corporate wellness side, Fitbit also announced the results of two studies that looked at the impact of Fitbit on healthcare costs. The company sponsored a study by Springbuk on unlocking ROI of workplace wearables, following 2,689 individuals over two years. The analysis found that the average cost of employees who opted into a workplace Fitbit program was reduced by nearly 25 percent (about $1,300 per person).

Springbuk used three years of medical claims, pharmacy, biometric and activity data to analyze Fitbit corporate wellness programs at a large, self-ensured employer with over 20,000 employees. The first year was a baseline, then the following two years looked at the impact of the Fitbit program. There were 866 employees wo opted into the program, and they experienced the aforementioned reduced costs. Of those who opted in, 266 employees used their Fitbit tracker for at least half the duration of the program and decreased their healthcare costs even more – about 46 percent.

“These are looking at everyone from ‘low-steppers’ around 6,600 steps per day – to those who we consider the ‘worried well’ and are stepping beyond the recommended 10,000 steps per day, and they are all getting a decreased healthcare cost,” Amy McDonough, VP of Fitbit Group Health told MobiHealthNews in an interview. “It really shows you don’t have to go all out and get to 10,000 steps a day to get healthcare costs savings. You are able to see incremental improvements even at a lower level.”

To compare to a smaller employer, McDonough referenced a 2014 pilot study by the Dayton Regional Transit Authority, which armed about 600 of their employees with Fitbits after becoming self-insured and focused on reducing healthcare costs. The Transit Authority was able to see an improvement in health outcomes including an average decrease in LDL cholesterol levels of 12 points and in glucose levels of 17 points after one year, which the company estimated would save them about $2.3 million over two years.

The results have encouraged Fitbit to seek out more studies, McDonough said.

“You will continue to see us work with employees who want to have measurable results, whether company is small, mid-size or large,” McDonough said. 

Fitbit also announced the launch of the Step It Up! Challenge, which is a two-week initiative to encourage everyone with a Fitbit, regardless of age, abilities or fitness levels, to take more steps every day. People can sign up starting today at www.StepItUpUSA.org using their tracker or app and have their steps automatically count towards the challenge, or can sign in with Google or Facebook account and manually input their steps or distance traveled. Competitors can participate with friends, family or co-workers, plus some athletes and fitness professionals who will be competing. US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy will also be participating, and participants can see how they stack up against him as well. The challenge runs from October 13 through 26.