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Wearables in Healthcare
Computers have become ubiquitous in the everyday lives of people. Devices have already revolutionized many industries, with the commercial sector leading the way. Likewise, medicine has always been quick to accept new technologies, although strict national and international regulations have usually increased the time between development and prescription.
Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the fragility of health care systems around the world and has changed many of the social norms we have been living by. As a result, we are witnessing rapid developments in the “medical Internet of Things”, especially in the field of commercial wearable devices.
Sensors built into smartwatches and other devices already track many physical and electrical metrics, with commercially available biochemical sensors just around the corner. All combined, they can gather continuous quantitative data, in the comfort of patients’ homes, about a person’s physical state, sleeping habits, fall risk, and any other data set related to one’s health. Combining these digital markers, big data and cloud computing with clinical expertise opens up possibilities for advanced preventive care, remote diagnostics, and patient monitoring, as well as more affordable health care.
It is no surprise that we are witnessing a boom in the wearables market. The shipment volume of smart wearables is projected to register a CAGR of 19.48 percent between 2021 and 2026. This is the result of two separate lines of development.
First, advances in hardware and sensor technology have enabled us to create almost medical-grade devices that can be “concealed” as everyday fashion accessories. This has provided medical staff with actionable and valuable data sets, while also removing the stigma that previous portable medical devices have carried with them. As one of our partners told us: “Our clients call our device ‘the button of death,’ and usually keep it in the drawer.”
Second, there is an important change in user demographics. Older adults are increasingly owning new technology, and there are no signs that this trend will change. Adults over fifty are comparable to adults of other ages in adoption of devices and their everyday use. More importantly, the demand for health and wellness technology to enhance provider care is increasing among older adults. Data shows that over half of users would prefer to have their health managed by a combination of medical staff and health tech.
Both of these trends have been reinforced since the COVID-19 pandemic entered the picture, which put individual health into focus and made obvious the need to unburden our health care systems.
These trends also pushed the wearables industry (smartwatches, patches, implants) to pivot from fitness/activity trackers toward health tech and medical uses for their devices. Data supports this: According to research, more than 80 percent of consumers are willing to wear fitness/medical technology. It is no surprise then that Apple Inc. undertook a massive electrocardiographic (ECG) research project to prove their watch can detect atrial fibrillation among wearers. This research enabled the company to clear their product as an FDA-approved over-the-counter medical device.
So, what is the next big step for commercial wearables?
Initially, wearables were designed with physical activity and vital metrics in mind (fitness, sleep-tracking, blood oxygen saturation, body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure), targeting mostly the younger population devoted to fitness. Nowadays, wearables are harnessing the possibilities of reading electrical signals in the human body (ECG, EEG, EMG, etc.), while also considering environmental influences on health (air quality monitoring, loudness levels, UV radiation, temperature).
Future wearables will aspire to provide us with a comprehensive assessment of the wearer’s health. In order to accomplish that, they will need to track patients’ overall physiological status, performance and stress levels. This can only be accomplished with continuous monitoring of biochemical readings (glucose, electrolytes, alcohol, lactate, etc.), which are important diagnostic parameters. The implementation of advanced and miniaturized chemical sensors, which provide continual information in a non-invasive manner, will enable medical workers to track changing health trends and perform diagnosis at a distance.
Of course, this is easier said than done. There are many challenges to be overcome, like issues of accuracy, large-scale validation, safety, and stability.
From a medical standpoint, the biggest problem with commercial-grade wearables is that their algorithms are not usually published, which reinforces the questions surrounding their precision/applicability. Another complaint is that many wearables are developed without specific health applications in mind, and rather, as a catch-all medical device. There are concerns among the medical community that these devices can nudge people unnecessarily into visiting the hospital and straining the health system.
This brings us to the most important concerns with wearables as medical alerts in health tech. Data storage and security are paramount in health care, and manufacturers will need to gain their users’ trust if they expect them to hand over sensitive personal information. There are also questions of the interoperability of devices, connectivity, power and battery-life issues, performance reliability, etc. Any missing data can potentially have serious consequences.
All criticism aside, most medical experts agree on one thing: we are at the forefront of a new era in medicine. Throughout the history of medical science, doctors have been trying to understand what is happening with their patients’ bodies. The last century has seen a massive adoption of technology in medicine, but the prescription has largely remained the same, with a focus on patients in hospitals, outside of their daily routines. All the data gathered on a patient, however comprehensive, was only a drop in the sea of possible data sets.
This is about to change. It is reasonable to expect that wearables will revolutionize medical data collection, for the first time giving doctors near constant inputs of contextual data points and dramatically increasing the quality of health and disease tracking. These new insights should improve the chances for early detection of symptoms, treatment effectiveness, and decision-making in the clinic. At the same time, we will witness a decrease in hospital visits—indirectly lowering health care costs and making the system more efficient and affordable.
It is easy to imagine a future where patients will wear medical devices integrated with electronic health records, enabling health care professionals to remotely monitor their health and act if necessary. Combine these gigantic data sets with machine learning algorithms, and the possibilities multiply exponentially.
This article was written by Vicert’s Product Development Team members – Aleksandra Spasov, UX Specialist, and David Srbu, Delivery Manager.