The vast majority of current growth in wearable technology has been in the consumer sports and fitness world, but wearables are rapidly expanding in health and medical uses. While there have been pilot projects and exploratory use of wearables in medical use cases for the last few years, you’re now starting to see large, funded projects evolving in the health and medical space.
In addition, the capabilities of wearables have advanced to the point where they are now demonstrating performance levels suitable for medical use cases. This has opened up new possibilities for wearables in health and medicine to change how healthcare is delivered. While there is now a huge range of development going on in medical wearables, most of the projects fall into five primary categories.
This post will provide of overview of each of those categories and highlight key areas of potential growth in each category.
- Disease Management. Chronic diseases, particularly COPD, diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular disease, require regular monitoring. Historically that has required a combination of cumbersome measurement tools (i.e. blood pressure cuffs or glucose monitors) With biometric sensors in wearables showing equivalent accuracy of those traditional devices, wearables can now reduce enough friction in usage to not only get accurate measurements, but also increase patient compliance.
- Disease Diagnosis. Purpose-built wearables to validated health assessments allow sensors to screen and diagnose for issues such as atrial fibrillation, arrhythmia, and hypoxia. Arrhythmias can produce a broad range of symptoms, from barely perceptible palpitations to cardiovascular collapse. Sensor technology has changed the equation. Filling gaps in patient records has become a wearables industry opportunity. Smartwatch research can move to predictive modeling, as evidenced by a recent study, Li X, Dunn J, Salins D, Zhou G, Zhou W, Schüssler-Fiorenza Rose SM, et al. (2017) Digital Health: Tracking Physiomes and Activity Using Wearable Biosensors Reveals Useful Health-Related Information. The conclusion in the study: “Overall, these results indicate that portable biosensors provide useful information for monitoring personal activities and physiology and are likely to play an important role in managing health and enabling affordable health care access to groups traditionally limited by socioeconomic class or remote geography.”
- Personal Health. The best option remains prevention when it comes to healthcare steps for a long life, but it’s also the most challenging area to get relatively healthy individuals to adopt before they develop health issues. Wearable devices can now enable user experiences (UX) that collect meaningful health and wellness data “in the background” through devices people already wear (watches, audio earbuds, etc.) without adding a new process or “to do” to someone’s daily life. General fitness and wellness sensors with user-friendly UX have made measurable strides, include products like the Omron Wellness Healthkit. Blood pressure monitors can connect to this application for a fuller experience into Apple Health which includes setting goals, tracking progress and designing personal fitness plans. Thirty-one new digital health applications, most in wearables, debuted in January this year at CES, showing the growth of this category.
- Clinical Research. Biometric sensors will continue to have a place in defining accuracy and offering simplicity in the technology ecosystem of research. Some of the strongest examples would include Actigraph products, BIOPAC and ResearchKit. The difference now is the same level of data accuracy can be achieved in a simple wrist band that feeds data to a mobile app, instead of bulky, uncomfortable data collection systems. Monitoring sleep and gross motor activity dominate as important tracking arenas under investigation in clinical trial categories. Apple’s recent acquisition of Beddit is a good example of this.
- The use of wearables in therapeutics is likely further down the road than the areas outlined above, but early exploration with wearables is going on now. Most of the use cases involve using biometric signals to adjust or modulate therapy delivery over time. Biofeedback training in the area of Heart-Rate Variability (HRV), and haptic feedback for Parkinson’s Disease are two areas that may play a role in the next generation of user adoption as wearables rise in the category of therapeutics.
While it may seem relatively calm on the surface of medical devices and wearables, due to limited public announcements, but there is a tremendous amount of activity going on under the surface. Watch these categories closely because there are big changes going on every day that will impact how healthcare is delivered and consumed for years to come.