Fitbit Data Being Used In Personal Injury Case

Posted on December 8, 2014 I Written By

Anne Zieger is veteran healthcare consultant and analyst with 20 years of industry experience. Zieger formerly served as editor-in-chief of FierceHealthcare.com and her commentaries have appeared in dozens of international business publications, including Forbes, Business Week and Information Week. She has also contributed content to hundreds of healthcare and health IT organizations, including several Fortune 500 companies. Contact her at @ziegerhealth on Twitter or visit her site at Zieger Healthcare.

Lately, there’s been a lot of debate over whether data from wearable health bands is useful to clinicians or only benefits the consumer user. On the one hand, there are those that say that a patient’s medical care could be improved if doctors had data on their activity levels, heart rate, respirations and other standard metrics. Others, meanwhile, suggest that unless it can be integrated into an EMR and made usable, such data is just a distraction from other more important health indicators.

What hasn’t come up in these debates, but might far more frequently in the future,  is the idea that health band data can be used in personal injury cases to show the effects of an accident on a plaintiff. According to Forbes, a law firm in Calgary is working on what may be the first personal injury case to leverage smart band data, in this case activity data from a Fitbit.

The plaintiff, a young woman, was injured in an accident four years ago. While Fitbit hadn’t entered the market yet, her lawyers at McLeod Law believe they can establish the fact that she led an active lifestyle prior to her accident. They’ve now started processing data from her Fitbit to show that her activity levels have fallen under the baseline for someone of her age and profession.

It’s worth noting that rather than using Fitbit data directly, they’re processing it using analytics platform Vivametrica, which uses public research to compare people’s activity data with that of the general population. (Its core business is to analyze data from wearable sensor devices for the assessment of health and wellness.) The plaintiff will share her Fitbit data with Vivametrica for several months to present a rich picture of her activities.

Using even analyzed, processed data generated by a smart band is “unique,” according to her attorneys. “Till now we’ve always had to rely on clinical interpretation,” says Simon Muller of McLeod Law. “Now we’re looking at longer periods of time to the course of the day, and we have hard data.”

But even if the woman wins her case, there could be a downside to this trend. As Forbes notes, insurers will want wearable device data as much as plaintiffs will, and while they can’t force claimants to wear health bands, they can request a court order demanding the data from whoever holds the data. Dr. Rick Hu, co-founder and CEO of Vivametrica, tells Forbes that his company wouldn’t release such data, but doesn’t explain how he will be able to refuse to honor a court-ordered disclosure.

In fact, wearable devices could become a “black box” for the human body, according to Matthew Pearn, an associate lawyer with Canadian claims processing firm Foster & Company. In a piece for an insurance magazine, Pearn points out that it’s not clear, at least in his country, what privacy rights the wearers of health bands maintain over the data they generate once they file a personal injury suit.

Meanwhile, it’s still not clear how HIPAA protections apply to such data in the US. When FierceHealthIT recently spoke with Deven McGraw, a partner in the healthcare practice of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, she pointed out that HIPAA only regulates data “in the hands of, with the control of, or within the purview of a medical provider, a health plan or other covered entity under the law.”  In other words, once the wearable data makes it into the doctor’s record, HIPAA protections are in force, but until then they are not.

All told, it’s pretty sobering to consider that millions of consumers are generating wearables data without knowing how vulnerable it is.