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'We're Not As Healthy As We Should Be.' Fitbit CEO James Park Discusses New AFib Detection Partnership With Bristol-Myers Squibb-Pfizer

Patrick Lucas Austin

“We’re not as healthy as we should be.”

That’s what Fitbit CEO and co-founder James Park said at Thursday’s TIME 100 Health Summit, where MSNBC anchor Stephanie Ruhle interviewed him about the company’s future in the health care space, the impact of wearables and just how active Fitbit’s 30 million active users really are.

Ruhle talked with Park about Fitbit’s position as one of the first major wearables company to have gone public, one that led the charge in terms of mass market adoption but has lost ground to competitors offering more advanced wearable devices, as well as the cultural shift away from constantly being tethered to electronics, be it their smartphone or wearable device. “We’re trying to transform ourselves into a behavior-change company to help people manage these more serious conditions,” said Park, “And ultimately for the health care industry address rising costs as well.”

During the interview, Park announced a partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb-Pfizer Alliance, in which Fitbit will collaborate with the health care and pharmaceutical companies to detect symptoms of atrial fibrillation (AFib), an irregular heartbeat that can cause heart conditions like stroke and blood clots. The BMS-Pfizer Alliance is a joint effort between the two pharmaceutical companies established to raise awareness of atrial fibrillation and educate those affected by the condition.

Contrary to efforts from competing companies creating their own AFib detection software and devices, Park thinks alerting people to potentially fatal conditions without educating them about the risks is unduly stressful — and is the wrong approach to encouraging healthy choices. “Just getting an alert can overly alarm people,” said Park. “People don’t know what to do, doctors don’t know what to do with it. So, along with the BMS-Pfizer Alliance, we want to fill in all those gaps and complete that entire healthcare pathway around you.” Fitbit is currently in talks with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in order to approve the company’s AFib detection software, which will be made available to existing Fitbit products with optical heart-rate sensors necessary for AFib detection.

Fitbit’s user-generated data, combined with the company’s analytics talent, gives the company an edge when it comes to determining how cost-effective certain health-related behavioral changes are. “When you can run sophisticated data science on it you can understand how to influence people’s behavior and realize exactly what the cost savings are that come out of that,” said Park. “We’re starting to unlock that, and that’s whats sparked a lot of interest from employers, health plans, governments. We just announced something with the government of Singapore where Fitbits will be made available free to 20% of their population, and that’s with the understanding that wearing these devices and understanding that data behind it can have profound impacts on people’s health.”

Park thinks Fitbit’s focus on health care, along with its work in clinical trials to alert users to conditions like hypertension and sleep apnea, will turn its wearables into more than fun accessories.

“The more of these use cases we have, the more we can translate what we’re doing from a ‘nice to have’ to a ‘must have,’” said Park. “If you can wear a device that could literally save your life why wouldn’t you?”