Fitbit Force Recall: Case Study In Online Health Activism?

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Nearly a month ago, we posted a Boston health care executive's account of the nasty rash she developed from the Fitbit Force activity tracker: Love That Fitbit Force Tracker, Don't Love The Wretched Wrist Rash.

The author, Alexandra Lucas, described not just the rash but the vibrant online community that arose among Fitbit users who developed it, and asked: "Will social media wake the company up, or bring them down?"

On Friday, word spread that Fitbit had announced that it had stopped selling the Force and was issuing a voluntary recall.

The announcement by Fitbit CEO James Park does not mention the online user community and the mainstream media coverage it garnered. But the Fitbit Force story seems to offer an interesting case study in consumer health activism in the Internet age. Alexandra Lucas scanned the coverage of the recall, and found that 14 articles included mention of the Fitbit Forum and other social media. She emailed:

Reading this summary, I do think we made a difference in getting an unsafe product off the market — as well as creating an online resource on diagnosis and treatment for people who are affected.

The Fitbit discussion forum is going strong with 3,400 posts (!) and more than 600 people with the rash/burn identified on one member's spreadsheet. Many of us feel that Fitbit is not doing enough to let the 98% not affected (yet) know of the risks they face by continuing to wear the Force, and we continue to spread the word online and through social media.

Here's part of her list of media mentions of the online user forum:

Digital Trends: Fitbit issues recall of Force fitness band due to skin irritation:
“Skin irritation issues from constant use of the Fitbit Force came to light during January 2014 when owners started posting images of rashes on the wrist, basically directly underneath the Fitbit Force.”

Wall Street Journal: Fitbit wristband users complain of rashes
“User forums on, the website of the San Francisco company that also makes other wearable devices, include hundreds of comments about skin problems from wearers of the $129 Force.”

New York Times: Fitbit recalls Force device after complaints of rashes
“But after just a couple of weeks, that excitement turned to concern for some customers, who began developing rashes on their wrists and took to the forums on the company’s site to voice concern about the issue.” Jawbone UP24 vs. Fitbit Force, a physician's recommendation for best activity tracker
“We are no longer recommending the Fitbit Force be used by anyone. We thank the people in the comments section for their support and being outspoken on why the device needed to be recalled."

Consumerist: Fitbit voluntarily recalls rash-inducing Force wristbands
"Since the first reports of contact dermatitis caused by Fitbit Force movement trackers surfaced on the company’s forums (and gained publicity when Consumerist broke the story last month) customers have asked that the company recall the trackers."

Bekathwia/Flickr Creative Commons
Bekathwia/Flickr Creative Commons

Consumer Affairs: Fitbit wearers itching for relief
“Customers aren't so sure though. Those posting comments to ConsumerAffairs and elsewhere say that some sufferers have tested negative for nickel dermatitis while others who say they have a severe nickel allergy have not reacted at all to their Force.

Whatever it is, there will be more cases as the popularity of the Fitbit continues to grow, Bissig noted.
"Those who received a Force for Christmas are starting to have reactions — it is within that time frame now. ... [O]ur forum group has over 500 confirmed cases.  All reacted after weeks of wear."
She said members of the forum have tested for radio frequency burns, off-gassing, pH changes at the metal and battery leaking, so far with no conclusion.”

Slash Gear: Fitbit recalls Force over skin irritation complaints
“Word of the issue initially broke in Fitbit's user forums, where more than five hundred Force owners have chimed in with reports of reactions to the strap. Exactly how that manifests has varied by wearer: some have merely seen discoloration of their skin, while at the other extreme there have been cases of peeling flesh and sores.”

Re/code: Fitbit recalls Force after rash of rash complaints
“The Force went on sale just ahead of the holidays, but complaints began to surface before the end of the year. Customers on Amazon and other online forums described developing itchy red rashes, bumps and blisters after wearing the device. In many cases, the symptoms didn’t go away even after they stopped wearing the Force and treated the affected area with over-the-counter medication.”

Global News: Fitbit Force wristbands recalled due to skin irritation complaints
Cites tweet from one of the Fitbit Forum members:

Doug MacLeod@DougMacLeod Jan 13
The newest #fitbit Force #burned my arm!! They need to fix this.... …

Readers, do you see lessons here for health companies in the digital age?

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.




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