Wellness tech: trendy gadgets for the rich, or better health for everyone?

wellness for everyone
Image by Mousemd | Bigstockphoto

Most people say health is the most critical thing in their life. At the same time, health services and products are not things people want to associate themselves with if they can help it. But many people are willing to associate themselves with sports and active, healthy lifestyles. We can see how wellness brands want to market themselves, and which products people like to share on social media. In developing countries, the same technology could save lives and increase the quality of life. The problem is that most people can’t afford it. And this is a big problem.

Over 400 million people worldwide have diabetes, and 1.5 million deaths are directly attributed to diabetes each year. Both numbers have been steadily increasing over the past few decades. It is projected that over half a billion people will have diabetes by 2040. Diabetes is also proliferating rapidly in developing countries, including also many undiagnosed and untreated cases. China, India and Pakistan are the top countries with diabetes cases.

Globally, an estimated 26% of the world’s population has hypertension, and this is expected to increase to 29% by 2025. It is also estimated that over 700 million such cases are untreated. Undiagnosed cases are mainly in developing countries.

Wellness devices for the healthy, but not for the sick

We are now rapidly developing new wellness technology to measure blood glucose and blood pressure around the clock, although 24/7 measurements are not needed to diagnose diseases or treat them. However, this illustrates the contrasts between technology and the current reality, when hundreds of millions of people are undiagnosed and untreated, while it’s the healthy people that are starting to use wearable health monitoring devices.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, many people – especially in developing countries – cannot afford even basic health care, let alone health devices. And secondly, people are often ashamed of their health issues. If you have diabetes, you don’t want to talk about it to too many people or wear something that could indicate your disease. Especially when it comes to kids and teenagers, talking about medical conditions can be difficult, and can even sometimes lead to bullying.

At the same time, wellness data and “biohacking” are becoming so fashionable that many healthy people are proud to wear these devices, monitor their personal health data, and even share it on social media. Wearing fitness trackers is becoming a status symbol to indicate you can buy these quite expensive products, and that you are an active person who takes care of your wellbeing.

Expensive closed ecosystems don’t solve health issues

Wellness technology is valuable for both user groups: lower-income people with medical conditions and more affluent people living an active, healthy lifestyle. But the fact is that these products and services are mainly tailored for the latter group: wealthier people who can buy expensive devices and pay monthly fees to get data, analytics, and health recommendations.

I have written before about closed and open wearable data ecosystems. At the risk of oversimplifying, we can say that the above problem is much more prominent with closed ecosystems. Everyone understands that Apple Watch and Apple Health don’t address or solve the health monitoring needs of poor people in developing countries. And poor people don’t use AI or expert services to interpret and monitor their data. It might be a different story if, say, all people could use personal health data and wearables via public health care.

Wellness products to monitor diabetes and hypertension are just a couple of examples. The same situation exists (and will continue to exist) with many other health issues, especially regarding preventive health care. The technology to diagnose and treat many diseases is not available to all people, and sometimes it is even less available to people who would really get the most value from it.

Of course, there are many other things in our world that are unfair, and there are no easy solutions for those issues. But for health and wellness technology, there are also feasible models to improve the situation.

Three wearables market trends to watch

There are three particular trends in wellness tech that indicate the way forward:

  1. The price of sensor technology is going down rapidly. Such a price drop makes it more affordable for many people to get sensors to monitor their health.
  2. Data analytics and AI are developing rapidly, and enable cost-effective and scalable services to analyze health data for many people unable to use expensive health care resources.
  3. Investments in technology that prevent diseases could mean significant savings in health care services.

These trends suggest that affordable health and wellness technology services for all is achievable in the not-too-distant future. At the same time, however, different parties in the ecosystem have very different interests. For example, many wearables companies would prefer to keep their own closed ecosystems and let people pay higher monthly fees for data and analytics services. Preventative healthcare is also a difficult area to attract investments, because the ROI is not immediate. Often, it makes more business sense to offer something to people who are already sick, decrease their insurance compensations and get an insurance company to pay for it than to prevent people from becoming sick.

All of this means that health and wellness technology is also a political issue. Private companies must, of course, make profits from their products, and investing in developing new technology must be attractive in that regard. But public healthcare organizations, lawmakers and regulators can do a lot to improve the environment so that it encourages companies to create solutions that can make everyone’s health and life better regardless of their economic situation.

New wellness technology can make the lives of hundreds of millions of people better, help save healthcare costs, and help fight against fast-growing diseases. But it requires products and ecosystems that are available and affordable for everyone, not just fancy new services for wealthy people who are already healthy. We especially need open interfaces, open competition for health product ecosystems, the willingness of public healthcare organizations to utilize health data and AI services, and public support to invest in preventive health care.

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