Newsroom

Our Stories

Using sleep monitoring devices in the 'Google Age of medicine'

Toronto, August 22, 2016

By Kaitlyn Patterson

A man wearing a Fitbit sleeps in bed

Sleep data from wearable health technology can be helpful when trying to get a sense of a person’s overall sleep patterns, but there could be risks associated with applying this technology to the diagnosis and management of sleep disorders, advised Dr. Christopher Li, a respirologist and sleep disorders specialist at St. Michael’s Hospital, during an interview and grand rounds.

Wearable health technologies such as the Fitbit, Apple Watch and Xiaomi Mi Band offer sleep tracking functions that report data including time slept, sleep efficiency and awakenings throughout the night.

After several patients brought in sleep data from these devices, Dr. Li decided to use a Fitbit himself so he could better understand what the data meant. He tracked his sleep habits for one week and discovered that the device produced considerable inconsistencies when compared to the ActiGraph, a standard medical sleep tracking device. He said that both devices used similar technology and were subjected to the same limitations because they use movement to indicate that the wearer is awake.

“Researchers in two studies, one in 2012 and another in 2015, found that the Fitbit tended to overestimate sleep time and efficiency,” said Dr. Li. “Relying on this data inappropriately could cause people to falsely believe they are getting enough sleep.”

He said that people can sometimes become overly fixated on the data this technology produces. In today’s “Google Age of medicine,” Dr. Li said people are becoming more aware of sleep disorders based on Internet research and wearable technology data, which could be problematic if people started self-diagnosing sleep disorders.

“Some of my patients that use commercial wearable sleep monitoring devices come in concerned because the sleep data looks terrible, even though they feel fine,” said Dr. Li. “This data can generate unnecessary anxieties and lead people to create an issue where there isn’t one.”

However, he said that in the right context, people can use sleep monitoring devices to help with changes to their overall sleep patterns and habits.

“Similar to a sleep diary, the data can be useful when tracking sleep patterns because it can help identify inconsistencies,” said Dr. Li. “If this data can help people to recognize inconsistent patterns and prioritize their need for adequate sleep, it could lead to positive changes in overall health and well-being.”

About St. Michael's Hospital

St. Michael’s Hospital provides compassionate care to all who enter its doors. The hospital also provides outstanding medical education to future health care professionals in 27 academic disciplines. Critical care and trauma, heart disease, neurosurgery, diabetes, cancer care, care of the homeless and global health are among the hospital’s recognized areas of expertise. Through the Keenan Research Centre and the Li Ka Shing International Healthcare Education Centre, which make up the Li Ka Shing Knowledge Institute, research and education at St. Michael's Hospital are recognized and make an impact around the world. Founded in 1892, the hospital is fully affiliated with the University of Toronto.