What’s your resting heart rate? How many steps did you walk today?
A few years ago, questions like these might have been difficult or even impossible to answer for the layperson. But nowadays, smartwatches and other monitoring devices let us monitor these things and much more, including certain symptoms and aspects of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
While there are still limits to what smartwatches and their ilk can do, the future seems pretty promising. For instance, a recent fascinating study looked at possible advances in wearable devices, including incorporating them into tattoos and creating systems to deliver doses of certain medication.
Monitoring devices have improved the lives of many people, and will likely continue to improve them. But some health experts worry about a dark side to this progress. Will the rise of monitoring devices bring about a large-scale increase in health anxiety?
For Lindsey Rosman, it’s a strong possibility. She’s written a study on the subject, which was inspired by one of her patients. The seventy-year-old woman, who suffered from an irregular heartbeat, was using a smartwatch to monitor her heart rate. She ended up taking over 900 ECG recordings with her watch in a single year.
It’s understandable that a patient like this woman, who has a heart condition, would be concerned, even afraid, about her health. But Dr. Rosman has found that like her, many patients often panic because of misinterpreted information or irrational fear of reasonable data. For instance, Rosman has seen patients who were concerned about increased heart rates after exercise. Panic can also sometimes comes from no information at all - as when a wearable indicates that it can’t connect to the internet or displays an error message.
Dr. Rosman’s concern that the increasing capabilities of monitoring devices and their increasing presence in the world could cause a wave of health anxiety, isn’t totally unfounded. After all, as Dr. Sylvia Karasau mused in a recent article in Psychology Today, we are all “patients-in-waiting”.
Knowing that we can monitor our bodies closely, or even obtain information about probable inherited conditions via DNA testing, we go through the world feeling that it’s just a matter of time before we’ll become ill or succumb to the effects of these conditions.
Karasau points out that many of us would never have thought of these issues before - for better or for worse.
While there’s no certainty that smartwatches and other wearable monitoring devices will eventually cause massive health anxiety, it’s a good idea for both doctors and patients to be prepared.
People who wear smartwatches and other monitoring devices do have some ways to prevent or alleviate any anxiety these might cause. For instance, one commenter on a Reddit thread about health anxiety and smartwatches suggests turning off features like alerts that indicate high heart rate.
The commenter also suggests using the device to observe what is normal - for example, understanding that heart rate will increase at least slightly when going up the stairs.
Self-professed hypochondriac Lee Kynaston advises turning health anxiety into something proactive: by taking better care of oneself and practicing healthy habits.
Doctors should be aware of how to help patients with health anxiety. Some strategies include empathetic listening, suggesting follow-up visits, and sharing objective health facts rather than appearing to give an opinion.
Smartwatches and other monitoring devices have undeniable benefits. But as with anything else, balance is important. Healthy people with a tendency towards health anxiety should be cautious when using them. And users should try to observe results not only out of anxiety but to learn more about their own health.