Fitbit Force Recall: Case Study In Online Health Activism?

The author's Fitbit Force rash (Courtesy)

Alexandra Lucas’s Fitbit Force rash, even after weeks without the tracker (Courtesy)

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 Fitbit.com, 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.”

iMedicalApps.com: 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…. https://community.fitbit.com/t5/Force/Fitbit-burned-arm/m-p/55227#U55227 … pic.twitter.com/Ig4FyR9kRi

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

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  • Up& do

    I have that rash, it’s awful! Only wore the band for a week
    The rash gets worse even after I stopped wearing it, had to see the Doc for steroid cream. I keep my wrist cover because the rash is more like blisters
    they look awful! Just sign up for the return kit. Wish they would pay the Doc bill and Rx bill?..

    • M.A.

      Stop steroid use immediately. This is not an allergy. It is a radio frequency/radiation burn. Steroids are making everyone’s much much worse.

  • t-is-me

    I noticed mine a few days ago… Have still been wearing it because I LOVE the product so much. Mine also looks like poison ivy (so says my husband at least, I have never had poison ivy). Mine was the same way way as HopeHeFails mentioned, didn’t notice until I was showering and just happened to see it, since it’s on the outside of my wrist. I had originally thought maybe it was due to excessive sweating as I’ve been working out more as of lately… But I think it might be time to take the Force off… I’m legitimately scared of what will become of my wrist now…

  • MtnView

    Purchased on Jan 27. By Feb. 17, quarter-size burn/rash where digital read-out sits on wrist and a smaller pea-size two inches away. Looked like poison ivy outbreak. Then I heard about the Fitbit Force issue. Took photos, removed Force, Burn/rash now the size of a half-dollar with darker red color and has blisters. It does itch and I’m not scratching. The pea-size is now the size of a dime. It is growing. Is this going to scar? Heck, is it going to get well? Fitbit is sending a replacement ‘One’ which clips on. Don’t know if I want it now. Wonder if there is a particular code-date/manufacture date that is all bad and others are ok? Did anyone get a Force that didn’t break them out?

    • Stephanie

      I received my Force as a Christmas gift and have worn it everyday since with no issues so far thankfully. I live in humid Houston, TX and thus sweat a lot on my runs. I wipe it off after and take it off before I shower. I don’t know if that matters. Numerous friends have had theirs just as long without issues as well. Very strange! I really like this device, except for the clasp. I have had the Zip (lost it after falling from the carrier), changed to the Flex (fit is nice, but very limited display capability). In comparison, the Force is the best. My husband has the One. Digital display is great and not quite as easy to lose as the Zip. Probably the second best Fitbit option, but you still have to remember to keep it out of the wash and put on.

      Good luck to you and hope that your skin heals up.

      • MtnView

        It’s good to hear there really are Force units out there that didn’t cause skin irritations. Wouldn’t be surprised to learn there was a bad batch and I got one of them. The pharmacist suggested using brand name ointment, Extra Strength Benadryl, rather than a generic. Hopefully, the areas will disappear completely over time.
        The replacement One arrived today. I’ll give it a go since it’s here. Fitbit Customer Service said that they will let me upgrade when one is available. Much thanks for your info and well wishes.

        • M.A.

          My Dr and many others Ive spoken to have diagnosed this as radio frequency/radiation burn. It is not chemical or ellergic. Do not take steroids, it will make it much worse.

          • Bal Navarro

            Hi I’m very concerned about this problem. I went to the Dr. and he said it was an Allergy to the metal and prescribed steroids. I know this can’t be true for the way the case has been handled by fitbit. Also because of the way the burn appeared. I don’t know where to go in order to get help I’m not going to use the medicine but I still need help to find a Doctor that can take my case seriously. I live in San Antonio Tx.

          • M.A.

            I am in Ontario, Canada. I was given Flamozine (the strongest burn cream that can be prescribed to me according to my pharmacist, who said it is given to third degree burn victims). I now have just a scar. After a month. I haven’t been able to get any diagnosis other than my above mentioned.. and no one could offer any help with it when it was still a bad burn. Get some burn cream and good luck. Or even just leave it alone completely, if it is not too bad. I went a month before applying anything at all, then applied cream for a month.

  • http://hehasfailed.wordpress.com/ HopeHeFails

    It’s bizarre to see this ‘rash’ get worse and worse after you stop using the device. All kinds of speculation out there on the real cause, which has yet to be revealed. It seems relatively resistant to OTC steroids and other topical skin treatments. Looks like poison ivy, but mine doesn’t itch. In fact, I didn’t even know I had it until I saw it on my arm in the mirror while shaving… the dreaded Fitbit ‘rash’ (or chemical burn, electrical burn, radiation, or whatever it is).