It's hard to detect irregular heartbeats without continuous monitoring.
Photograph by Images Etc Ltd—via Getty Images
By Sy Mukherjee
April 24, 2016

A thirst for data and companies’ growing desire to sell you products which let you wear your entire life on your sleeve (literally) has catalyzed a gold rush for new wearable medical tech. Not every product winds up being a Fitbit-level success. And things can get particularly dicey when it comes to technology which may have life-or-death consequences (just ask these guys).

But San Francisco-based iRhythm Technologies and its ZIO XT heart monitoring patch have been on a promising path, elbowing their way through a crowded market into partnerships with biotech giants like Gilead (gild), a massive 6,100-patient study with the Scripps Translational Science Institute (STSI), and wide-ranging coverage agreements with major private and public insurers.

(For more on the intersection of technology and health, read the feature “Can Sean Parker Hack Cancer?“, from our May 1, 2016 issue.)

The wireless ZIO patch attaches to patients’ chests and continuously monitors heart activity. This is meant to observe possible atrial fibrillation, or AFib—a common heart arrhythmia characterized by irregular heartbeat. Left unchecked, AFib can lead to stroke or heart failure in patients.

But detecting AFib in at-risk individuals can be a tricky prospect since the condition can be largely asymptomatic and occur in random spurts (hence the need for round-the-clock monitoring).

Of course, few consumers can or are willing to spend most of their time hooked up to a traditional ECG. And that’s where the patch’s portability and discreetness matter.

The ZIO XT can be worn continuously for up to 14 days, and its service package includes algorithms that crunch the data and technicians who deliver personalized reports to users and their doctors. By last fall, it had been prescribed to about 400,000 patients. The company says that it has worked out insurer network coverage encompassing 290 million people (including Medicare patients).

And the patch could inch towards becoming the standard of care for heart monitoring if ongoing studies continue to confirm its efficacy. The STSI trial, launched in November, is meant to assess whether or not the patch could be more effective for catching arrhythmias than a trip to the doctor’s office.

Drugmakers are getting in on the action, too. Last month, Gilead Sciences announced that it had launched phase 2/3 clinical trials to test its investigational heart drug eleclazine in conjunction with iRhythm’s patch. The ZIO will be used to guage whether or not the biotech’s drug can successfully alleviate AFib in hypertrophic cardiomyopathy patients.

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