The scandal around Fitbit Charge 5 effectively flatlining on users is growing – as the device’s parent company denies it’s anything to do with a rogue software update. However, missing in the story is the fact that many chronically ill people rely on Fitbits to monitor particular conditions. For these people, the death of their devices is having a damaging impact.
Fitbit Charge 5: is it or is it not the software update?
As BBC News reported, Fitbit has been having a few issues. Since late December, countless users have seen their devices die after installing the brand’s latest firmware update. As BBC News reported:
Users on Fitbit’s own forums however are adamant the software change is to blame, with some Charge 5 users urging against installing the update, and describing how their devices no longer work properly, if at all.
“Basically, it’s useless now, the battery’s dead,” Dean, in Essex… told the BBC, as he explained his problems with his Charge 5.
He said previously his device was “working really well” and was “easily” able to last seven days per charge – and said the thought the software update was to blame.
“I don’t really see why hundreds of other people would be having the same problem after installing the update if it wasn’t”.
However, for many people Fitbit is more than just a lifestyle device. It is an essential part of healthcare if you happen to be chronically ill.
A (previously) useful device for chronically ill people
On Twitter (now X), people have been sharing their uses of Fitbit for their chronic illnesses:
Nicola Jeffery, founder of campaign group the Chronic Collaboration, is one such user. She uses her Fitbit Charge 5 to monitor her postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). In Nicola, POTS is caused by brainstem compression of the vagus nerve due to craniocervical and atlantoaxial instabilities.
POTS is where a person’s heartrate does not properly regulate on a change of position – that is, from laying down to sitting, or sitting to standing. It elevates but doesn’t come back down again. As one person on Twitter pointed out:
So, Nicola is tachycardic (having a heartrate of over 100bpm) a lot of the time – by simply standing up. In her, POTS also causes cyclic vomiting syndrome where she vomits uncontrollably – roughly every 30 minutes – for around 24 hours at a time.
Therefore, being able to monitor her heartrate is crucial.
Fitbit Charge 5: losing all its spoons
However, Nicola’s Fitbit also failed in late December – and hasn’t been working ever since. She and the Chronic Collaboration said:
Many of us who live with invisible and chronic illnesses were very keen to try out Fitbit devices. They have allowed patients to constantly monitor heart rates, sleep patterns, and levels of exertion, which for people with chronic conditions like POTS, myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), and other invisible illnesses, has been revolutionary.
However, the failure of Fitbit Charge 5s has left many of its users not only frustrated but also feeling completely let down and out of pocket. We especially feel let down here at the Chronic Collaboration. While we expect to lose our spoons, we do not expect the device we use to suddenly lose all its spoons too.
So far, Google has denied the failure of the Fitbit Charge 5 is to do with the firmware update. A spokesperson told the BBC:
We’re still investigating this issue, but can confirm it is not due to the recent firmware update. Users should continue to update their devices to the latest firmware and contact Fitbit Customer service at help.fitbit.com if they encounter any issues.
A preposterous response if ever there was one – as you cannot update a dead Fitbit Charge 5. Nicola said that:
This is completely unacceptable and not good enough, Google. You device has gone from Fitbit to Fib-bit.
While the puns are welcome, it is a serious issue.
Google: fix up, please
At its heart is the fact that Fitbit does not consider itself a medical device. As CNET wrote:
Fitbit… and similar wearables… aren’t intended for medical diagnosis, a distinction that gadget makers are very clear about. Yet smartwatches and fitness bands can now track metrics, such as blood oxygen saturation and body fat estimates, that may have previously required a visit to the doctor or a specialized device.
Heartrate is one such metric that is crucial for some chronically ill people. So, regardless of what type of device Fitbit Charge 5 considers itself to be, it should as a minimum acknowledge that there is a whole community of people reliant on it every day.
Within this is the bigger question of why chronically ill people living in the UK with conditions like POTS have to spend their own money to monitor their conditions – when the country allegedly has a publicly-funded health service that is supposed to provide this sort of care for free. Answers on a postcode marked ‘government reorganisation and privatisation’.
Fortunately for Nicola, she is on a pharmacist’s counters-worth of medication for her POTS, and it is now relatively under control. For others, they’re not so lucky – and a Fitbit could mean the difference between being unwell and being severely unwell.
Ultimately, though – Google’s half-baked fob-off is not good enough. Chronically ill people like Nicola are reliant on their Fitbits. It needs to recognise this, and take the failure of people’s devices as seriously as they take wearing them.
Featured image via Reddit