Wearables are evolving fast – is the healthcare space ready?

wearables healthcare
Image by Mvelishchuk | Bigstockphoto

In the last few weeks alone we’ve seen a lot of news from startups that have announced new technologies and services for collecting and analyzing wearables health data that promise to transform healthcare as we know it.

For instance, Siebel Health closed a $33 million funding round for scaling a wearables-based RPM platform; Prifina announced its new open source tools to generate artificial data for building health and wellness apps; and Vivalink published new blood pressure monitoring sensors. We’ve even seen nanotech tattoos that can detect your health problems.

Those are just a few examples, but as a whole, they demonstrate how rapidly the market is developing. But will wearables change the healthcare sector just as fast?

The rise of wearables tech

Most wearables are not yet clinical-level devices, meaning they have no official status among health standards and regulatory bodies (for example, they haven’t received FDA approval in the US), so they cannot be used by health and wellness providers for healthcare purposes. Still, many people use these devices to monitor their own health and well-being. New-generation health and wellness devices also provide more insights into metrics and changes over time that that could be helpful for doctors. When I went to see a doctor a few months ago for a minor case, I told the doctor some of my Fitbit and Oura metrics, and he actually wrote them down in my health record.

Meanwhile, there are many wearable manufacturers that are seeking official approval as health devices. I wrote earlier about CES 2022 and how, for example, Apple Watch, Withings, and Movano are working to get FDA approval. Of course, such approvals are long and slow processes and sometimes they make the development of devices slower. Technology is developing very rapidly, and companies must regularly bring new generations of products to the market, so they can’t always wait around for regulatory approval.

I also wrote earlier that wearable data would be valuable for clinical trials. Wearable devices can offer much more data, help to find some rare symptoms, and decrease the costs of trials. Wearable data can help the healthcare system in many ways to make trials more effective, discover preventive methods, and understand public health better. Furthermore, they can also open many opportunities on an individual level and in daily health issues.

Perspective on how rapidly things change

The news announcements I mentioned at the start of this column were about services and platforms that enable more real-time monitoring and detection of unusual or more serious symptoms. We all know that it is not so simple and easy to develop applications in this area; health monitoring is quite a serious matter. At the same time, it would be important to find reasonable models to make it possible.

We can say that it is always better to measure your health with approved medical devices and have a doctor analyze the results. Even so, we also know that it is not the reality; in fact, many people worldwide don’t have access to proper health care services. So, there are a lot of situations where technology can play an important role.

I was just having a discussion about how, when I traveled as a young student in the early 1990s, we didn’t have the internet or mobile phones. The only way to get a message home was to go to a payphone and leave a message to an answering machine (which was literally a machine, with a cassette tape). Even 15 years ago, it was not yet really possible to navigate with your mobile phone – we still mainly used them for voice calls and text messages.

Now we use our devices to track our friends in real-time on WhatsApp when they are traveling. We can make video calls with them at any time wherever they are. We can share pictures and videos of our trip in real time. We can book flight tickets, a hotel room for the next town, a driver to take us from the airport to the hotel, and a GPS-powered map to find our way around – all of this via our phone. This is totally ordinary now. Thinking about this reminds us how rapidly things change.

Big change for healthcare is coming

Looking at where we are now, we see early iterations of devices that can monitor our heart rate and other biometrics. More new devices with better sensors are being released at an accelerating pace. We can only imagine what this could mean in the next 15 or 30 years. And it is not only about sensors to measure things, but also the data from those devices that can be transferred in almost real-time to many places. Moreover, the processing power to combine and analyze the data is increasing.

We know that wearables collect very sensitive data – much more sensitive than your location or your travel updates on social media. So, in that sense, the reliability of these devices is an important issue, as well as data privacy and personal control of that data. It is also important to be able to combine and use data from many devices. We don’t want to be in a situation where only a wearables manufacturer can make an app to monitor your wellbeing and health from its data.

Now is the time when health care providers, insurance companies and regulators are recognizing the importance and significance of the fast-developing wearables and personal sensor market. There are already a lot of very interesting startups and tech companies building sensors, platforms, and ecosystems for people to collect, manage and utilize their personal health data.

This will change healthcare significantly, although we don’t know for sure when – certainly over the next ten years, possibly as soon as three years in some areas. But while we don’t how fast that change will happen, we do know that clear rules for devices and data are needed. At the same time, it is also important to understand the opportunities these devices and services create for individuals, and the possible impact on public health. And we also need reasonable models to proceed.

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