A new health equity initiative from Fitbit is aiming to put research tools into the hands of traditionally underrepresented early career researchers to empower investigations into health disparities.
Announced this week, the Health Equity Research Initiative will award up to $500,000 in Fitbit products and services to researchers looking specifically at health inequalities in underserved populations.
Award winners will also get support from Fitabase, a research data management platform and longtime Fitbit partner. The platform bridges the gap between consumer wearables and clinical research by extracting device data and uploading it to the Fitabase portal for interpretation.
The first round of applications is due May 28. Interested researchers must submit a letter of intent describing their research and how they will use Fitbit’s products and services in it.
Beginning June 16, Fitbit will notify the researchers who have been invited to submit a full application due the following month. Fitbit anticipates it will announce the award recipients this summer.
WHY THIS MATTERS
Clinical trials have long suffered from a lack of diversity that stretches from the people conducting the research all the way to the people participating in the trials.
In 2011, Black people made up 12% of the U.S. population, yet only 6% of clinical trial participants identified as Black, according to an FDA whitepaper. Similarly, the report noted a diversity gap among Hispanic individuals, who made up 16% of the population but only 1% of clinical trial participants.
Black and Hispanic people are also underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workforce, according to the Pew Research Center. While Black people make up 11% of the overall U.S. workforce, they represent only 9% of STEM workers. Hispanic individuals comprise 16% of the U.S. workforce by only 7% of all STEM employees.
These disparities have become more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic as researchers worked to develop a vaccine for a disease that has had a disproportionate effect on minorities and people of color.
In fact, experts suggest that increasing diversity in researchers could help recruit more diverse participant groups and even lead to higher quality data, according to a report in The American Journal of Bioethics.
"Researchers who share similar ethnic, racial, or cultural backgrounds as potential participants may share similar life experiences, like racism and discrimination," the report says. "This common history or experiences could help those researchers better understand participants' concerns and build rapport when interacting with them. Rapport between researchers and potential participants would help build trust towards precision medicine research and likely increase participation rates among minority populations."
Further, the report points to past research that shows clinical trials are of higher quality when performed by diverse groups.
THE LARGER TREND
Wearables have become a powerful tool in research for their ability to capture insightful health data such as activity, sleep and heart rate. Especially now in a time of social distancing, they offer researchers a remote way to collect patient data.
For its part, Fitbit has used its product line to study pandemic sleep habits, COVID-19 predictors, heart rate variability and more. Most recently, it announced a new study looking into how smartwatches can be used to track blood pressure without arm cuffs.
Another behemoth in the space, Apple, has also done its fair share of wearable research. In recent months, Apple Watches have been used to investigate early signs of worsening heart failure, demographic period symptoms, cardiovascular disease patients' frailty and hearing.
ON THE RECORD
"The goals of the program are to support underrepresented early career researchers who are actively investigating health disparities while aiming to improve health outcomes in underserved populations," Fitbit said in the announcement.
"By putting additional resources in the hands of health disparities investigators and encouraging wearable research in the field, we hope to generate new evidence and methods for addressing health disparities while building trust in communities often absent from human health research."