Attention pharma laggards: FitBit trackers delivered in Biogen's MS movement study

PatientsLikeMe VP of innovation Paul Wicks

The wearable fitness trend has exploded in the past few years. But for patients with certain medical conditions, wearables are more than hipster status symbols. The devices could help them manage chronic conditions. And for pharma companies, they could gather data to help tailor new treatments, track patient outcomes, and develop relationships with the people who use their meds.

Just how much wearables can help is the question--and researchers, drug makers and patients themselves all want to find out. A recent study by PatientsLikeMe and Biogen ($BIIB) is one of the first to outfit patients with trackers to collect a steady stream of data. The study clipped Fitbit monitors on 250 patients with multiple sclerosis to continuously track their movements.

Paul Wicks, vice president of innovation at PatientsLikeMe, said the objective of the study was to find out whether the trackers truly deliver better information than patients' self-reporting. The researchers also wanted to determine whether patients would be comfortable with this kind of 24/7 monitoring.

What the study found over its 30-day run was yes--to both. Fewer than half of the participants (47%) had ever tracked their activity levels, but after the study, 89% said activity tracking is important for health management. One of the unexpected findings was that some patients made lifestyle changes as a result of what they learned. For example, patients took an average of 4,781 steps per day, roughly half the recommended daily total of 10,000, and some said the tracker inspired them to walk more.

As for participation and comfort level, a vast majority shared their data regularly, delivering an 87% adherence rate. A separate survey by PatientsLikeMe in December found that 4 out of 5 respondents would be willing to share personal health information with drug companies to help them make safer products, and 78% would do so to let drug companies learn more about their disease.

Biogen, which manufactures five MS drugs including Tecfidera and Avonex, has the same interests as PatientsLikeMe, Wicks said. Real world patient data is in short supply. For MS patients, for instance, walking is not only an important physical exercise but also an indicator of well-being and disease progression. Yet many MS patients' walking is assessed only in short-term clinical situations, such as having a doctor watch them walk down the corridor of a hospital or office.

"Ultimately, patients want the companies that manufacture their treatments to be the leading experts in the effects of those interventions and the nature of their disease," Wicks said.

Potential uses for health trackers across a swath of diseases include integrating them into patient care, using the data to change patient behavior--for example, for exercise or drug adherence--and possibly use trackers in drug trials to gauge real-world effectiveness. The real-world data could also help companies show payers that their meds are delivering results.

Richard Rudick, Biogen's VP of value-based medicine, said in a press release, "Consumer devices can measure number of steps, distance walked, and sleep quality on a continuous basis in a person's home environment. These data could provide potentially important information to supplement office visit exams."

- see the release from PatientsLikeMe

Special Report: The top 10 best-selling multiple sclerosis drugs of 2013 | Top 15 drug launch superstars - Tecfidera