Wearable wellness: Fitness trackers keep faculty mindful of well-being

Dr. Eliana Hempel sports a fitness tracker while discussing a patient with Dr. Jeffrey Horn at Penn State Health Cocoa Outpatient Center. Credit: Penn State Health / Penn StateCreative Commons

HERSHEY, Pa. — During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic’s winter surge in cases, a handful of physicians at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center put on more than just personal protective equipment to keep themselves healthy. Wearable fitness trackers allowed some of the Department of Medicine faculty at Penn State College of Medicine to be more mindful of their physical wellness. 

The faculty wellness initiative was inspired by an ongoing resident research study that is changing the way participating physicians think about their own health. Dr. Alex Hajduczok, a third-year resident in internal medicine and principal investigator for the project, is studying whether wearable fitness devices can measure wellness and predict burnout.

“What we saw very early on is that people liked using the device and used it to make small but meaningful improvements in their lifestyle,” Hajduczok said.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued to worsen and required an increasingly demanding schedule for inpatient care teams, the COVID-19 Faculty Well-being Mini-Grants from the Office of Faculty and Professional Development surfaced at the perfect time. Hajduczok’s gears began to turn: Would a similar model work just as well for faculty?

Dr. Brandon Auer, assistant professor of medicine, collaborated with Hajduczok to become principal investigator on a grant application positioning the endeavor less as a formal, biometric data-driven research study and more as a loosely structured initiative that encouraged physicians to be more mindful of their own wellness.

Auer knew that the project would gain traction. In such a high-stress and demanding field, he explained, self-care is frequently the preferred option for coping, but the impact of self-care practices may be “substantially limited by poor insight, as stress and its impact on health can be insidious.”

“Physicians are vulnerable to stress and long-term burnout, so it’s important that self-help methods to monitor and respond to stress are made available to them,” Auer said. “The wearable devices provided to our faculty have broad potential to improve health by facilitating the early identification of maladaptive stress responses and providing opportunities for early intervention via self-care.”

By the end of January 2021, five physicians within the Department of Medicine’s Division of General Internal Medicine wore devices built by the Massachusetts-based fitness company WHOOP on their wrists, giving them access to physiologic data such as heart rate, respiratory rate and sleep.

So far, faculty have already reported seeing a noticeable change in mindfulness and wellness. Dr. Brian McGillen said wearing the device has added a whole other aspect to his exercise regimen by helping him strategize his rest and recovery. He might take a rest day if the data shows that his body needs more time to catch up, or adjust his sleep schedule if the device shows he needs more shut-eye.

The device has been eye-opening in other ways, too.

“It helps me reflect on the things that I think are the most important and that I hold the most important to me in my career,” McGillen said. “It helps me let go of some of the stuff that just doesn’t matter as much.”

Dr. Eliana Hempel said she’s been able to be more mindful of stressors and practices that improve her health differently.

“Often, we are so busy in our day-to-day life that we don’t leave much time and space for routine reflection on what’s working well and what’s not,” she said. “Utilizing the Whoop device has given me the ability to make check-ins with myself a daily habit.”

The device has also uncovered some surprises, too, in the way she perceives exertion and strain during workouts.

“I appreciate data-driven approaches to balanced physical activity,” Hempel said. “In the long run, I am hopeful that this device will help me continue to use exercise as the stress reliever it is while also avoiding injuries and maximizing my effort.”

This shift in how McGillen and Hempel interpret and improve their own wellness is all the more impactful during a unique point in history.

“Times of crisis tend to offer moments of reflection, processing and recovery. However, COVID-19 has had immeasurable impacts on all aspects of our lives, and the reflective times between crises that we rely on for recovery have been rare,” Hempel explained. “Yet, health and wellness are integral to our ability to continue caring for patients. Now more than ever, we must creatively approach finding new ways to care for ourselves.”

And that, Hajduczok said, is where the true value of the device lies.

“We spend all day caring for our patients, but sometimes we work so hard that we forget to take care of ourselves, our peers and our colleagues,” he said. “I think this initiative highlights the importance of self-empowering people to improve their own wellness so they can better serve others.”

Hajduczok leads a team of researchers and clinicians on these projects including Brinnae Bent and Drs. Auer, Kara DiJoseph, Audrey Thorp, JB Mullholand and Andrew Tinsley.

Last Updated July 15, 2021