Are Heart Rate Apps Accurate? The Answer May Surprise You!

Written by - Reviewed by Consumer Health Digest Team

Published: May 10, 2017 | Last Updated: Mar 6, 2019

Heart Rate Apps Accurate

Smartphones allow us to download and use a wide array of apps, not just social media websites. Nowadays, there’s an app for everything you can think of from reminders to drink water, to fitness plans. Health-related applications are popular, including those that measure your heart rate. It’s easy to download heart rate app and use it regularly, but the question is how effective are they.

Accuracy of Heart Rate Apps

Heart rate applications are available for Android and iOS devices and some smartphone manufacturers offer mobile health monitoring technology to their customers. Bearing in mind an increasing popularity of these apps, it is necessary to analyze their accuracy. Some people measure their heart rate regularly, others compare results to someone else’s and there is a growing need for a more detailed insight into this subject. Are results that appear on the screen, indeed, accurate?

A team of researchers led by Dr. Christophe Wyss at the Heart Clinic Zurich in Switzerland carried a study whose primary objective was to test the diagnostic accuracy of heart rate measuring apps in clinical practice on 108 participants.

They evaluated the reliability of four commercially available heart rate measuring applications using iPhone 4 and iPhone 5. It is important to mention that apps were randomly selected. Some of these heart rate apps used contact photoplethysmography (measuring heart rate by placing a finger tip on camera) while other apps used non-contact photoplethysmography (holding camera in front of your face).

Findings, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, discovered substantial differences in accuracy between four apps that were used. What’s more, differences in some apps were more than 20 beats per minute compared to ECG in 20% of measurements. This means that different apps tend to show different results, which tends to take away the accuracy to some extent.

What Type Performed Better?

Performed Better Heart

When it comes to two different types of apps that were used in the study, non-contact applications performed less well than their counterparts, especially at higher heart rates and lower body temperatures. In most cases, non-contact apps had the tendency to overestimate higher heart rates.

Dr. Wyss explains that although non-contact applications are easy to use, the number they show on the screen isn’t as accurate as when you use an app that requires placing a fingertip on phone’s built-in camera.

Scientists tried to investigate why these two types of heart rate apps have different accuracy and discovered that the explanation isn’t associated with quality of the camera, body temperature, age, or a person’s heart rate. Instead, the answer could be due to the algorithm an application uses to make a heart rate measurement.

This means that just because some algorithm works for one type of app, there is no guarantee it will work for a different kind. As a result, these applications show different values. Bear in mind that although contact apps tend to be more reliable than non-contact ones, it doesn’t mean all of them are immediately accurate. The accuracy can still vary from one app to another depending on algorithm and technology used.

Scientists advise consumers to measure heart rate due to specific reasons, not just for fun. Also, you should be aware that differences in apps are tremendous and, at this point, there are no criteria to assess them.

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Heart rate apps are available to all smartphone users and their increasing popularity calls for more research on this topic. Scientists from Switzerland discovered that apps show different results, but contact apps do better than non-contact counterparts. It comes down to the algorithm that is used.

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