Wearable Technology in Healthcare: Top Trends
The healthcare industry is changing rapidly thanks, in large part, to advancing technological solutions. These solutions are revamping medical device development, the digitisation of records, and healthcare-related mobile apps.
In Healthcare Disrupted, a book dedicated to the changes healthcare is facing, the authors and a cast of experts claim that healthcare, in line with tech advances, will be revolutionised. All the key aspects are being redefined including where care occurs, who is responsible, how patients are involved, and even the main focus of medical care itself.
Beginning with polygraph machines and hearing aid devices in the first half of the 20th century, the development of wearable technology grew from a scientific interest to an actual need. However, it wasn’t until the 21st century that health-related devices became a trend. In 2003, the very first digital pacemaker was introduced and in 2006, pedometers and fitness trackers flooded the market.
Wearables quickly became a part of our lifestyle, motivating us to increase the control level we have over our own health. There are two distinct yet interrelated aspects to the development of medical tech − fitness trackers and medical specific devices. Both are pushing the bounds of traditional healthcare.
In a previous post, we looked at the most popular manufacturers of fitness wearables and apps. In this post, we examine the main trends in the development of wearable healthcare technology. First, let’s see what data can already be managed by medical devices.
Trackable Healthcare Measurements and Data
With medical sensors, various health parameters can be tracked and measured without the wearer having to avail themselves upon hospitals and healthcare professionals. Numerous sensors, developed to monitor biochemical, physiological, and mental processes, are already used in neurology, gastroenterology, maternal care, and many other areas.
Which human body signs and stats can be analysed by medical sensors?
- ECG waveform: Wearable devices for ECG monitoring spot patterns to diagnose multiple illnesses and diseases including heart attacks and cardiac dysrhythmia. There are smartwatch-like bracelets designed for such purposes and tiny patches, which are placed on the chest. These wearables allow patients to check their health continuously and with efficacy instead of relying solely on a 24-h Holter once a year. The latest Apple Watch models also provide this function.
- Heart rate: This vital sign is now commonly measured not only by health wearables but also by fitness devices and mobile applications. Modern smartwatches feature heart-rate sensors identical to those used in medical equipment.
- Blood pressure: Portable devices enable BP readings several times a day, which is a great improvement when it comes to predicting cardiovascular diseases.
- Body temperature: A lack of body temperature regulation may lead to severe clinical consequences. Wireless thermometers measure temperature remotely and continuously. Temperature sensors can be included in sport watches and are a key element to dive computers. They can also be sold as an additional device, which is integrated with fitness wearables.
- Perspiration: Together with heart rates, this parameter can help identify mental states. Wearable medical technology is capable of signalling high-stress levels.
- Respiratory function: A number of wearable healthcare devices use fabric or polymer-based sensors, optical fibres, and other technologies to define changes to lung volume.
- Oxygen saturation: Detecting low oxygen percentage and saturation is of vital importance. Modern, wearable oxygen monitors use finger clip sensors which then send data to mobile apps or smartwatches.
- Glucose level: More than 9 per cent of the world’s population has diabetes, which makes glucose monitors one of the most popular types of health-related wearables. There are many devices including adhesive patches which monitor blood glucose levels.
- Seizure prediction: Specific technology used in the healthcare industry can detect seizures in patients diagnosed with epilepsy.
- Asthma prediction: Some wearables, such as chest patches and wristbands, predict and prevent asthma attacks by collecting information on lung function.
- Snoring: several devices were invented to help chronic snorers. Therapeutic pillows prevent snoring by adjusting the head’s position. They also improve sleep and posture in general.
The Arrival of Lifelogging
The trend of the quantified self, also called lifelogging, is an expanding movement acknowledged by leading industry professionals. In Hacking Healthcare, an aptly named book about healthcare software, the authors share their strong belief that real-time health data will soon become a natural part of the systems the industry uses to store and manage health records.
The numerous opportunities available for patients to track vital stats in their own homes has led not only to growing awareness but also to an actual obsession and a corresponding media frenzy. With so many devices and mobile apps capable of accurately tracking movements and basic health parameters, people swiftly got on-board with the practice of logging their current health state and everyday experiences in digital form.
It may seem like the so-called quantters are just obsessed with the idea of measuring anything they can. While that may hold true for the minority, it’s not a probable outcome for the vast majority of people. As it stands now, most daily-use apps (such as nutritional trackers) still don’t reach a desired level of automation.
Without automation, users are likely to get bored tracking every possible thing they can happening in their bodies. But when given digital tools to monitor health, people become interested in purchasing specialised devices and playing an active role in improving their health and medical care.
In this landscape, smartphones, social media sharing capabilities, and game-like features become increasingly intertwined with medical-specific data. As one example of this changing landscape, consider the memes arising as runners take a route, designed in an app, which creates a picture and is then shared online.
As Trotter and Uhlman point out, there will be more and more consumer-oriented healthcare wearables. Quantters will be able to send their measurements to a doctor or broadcast certain details to Facebook or Twitter. Entertainment and social media are already integrated into some new healthcare solutions. For example, EA Sports released a heart monitor which synchronises with game consoles.
Healthcare Wearables of the Future: Tiny in Size and Inexpensive
The shift in healthcare aims to make numerous medical procedures simpler and more accessible. For example, the practice of self-monitoring glucose levels became common in the 1980s but back then, technology couldn’t promise the desired level of accuracy and the price hindered some patients struggling with diabetes. Now, home monitoring requires much fewer steps and, more importantly, is continuous.
One of the newest glucose monitors, made by FreeStyle Libre, is a tiny patch which attaches to the upper arm and continuously measures blood sugar levels for two weeks. Devices produced by this company and its main competitors are sold in all major pharmacies and even in large retail stores such as Walmart in the US. The price for the sensor starts from $35.
It’s expected that every medical wearable will become smaller and lighter. As the authors of Hacking Healthcare predict, there will be tiny radio devices put inside pills to track digestive systems. Or, it will be possible to place an accelerometer sticker on a toothbrush to forward information about teeth health to dentists.
Augmented Reality Gadgets for Doctors
The smart wearables used in healthcare go beyond self-monitoring. Improvements to medical equipment are changing the face of the industry. For instance, augmented reality gadgets have made their way from entertainment to the world of medical services. Google AR glass has been used by surgeons to interact with medical data visualised in 3D and for the live broadcast of an operation.
A study held by Stanford Medical University and VitalMedicals showed that surgeons who used Google Glass detected desaturation and hypotension in patients ten seconds faster than those using traditional means. This tells us a lot about the role of technology in the healthcare industry, which is making clinical decisions sharper and medical procedures faster.
The development of healthcare wearables is generally focused on patients but as we can see, it delves much deeper. It’s not solely about making home monitoring more efficient but about making the whole healthcare ecosystem more flexible, adjustable, and ready to learn from previous experiences.
The Benefits of Wearable Health Technology for Hospitals
The biggest advantages of wearable technology in healthcare are personalisation, early diagnosis, and sharper clinical decisions. With such devices, patients don’t need to make a hospital visit each time they need to receive or send health information. Moreover, they can maintain a normal life while tiny devices track their condition.
This is a natural benefit for hospitals too. The number of unnecessary visits decreases and healthcare workers can see a patient’s information faster or access it remotely. Smart wearables cut costs for both patients and hospitals. For example, paper wristbands with RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags, made by Zebra Technologies, are used by hospitals to eliminate identity errors, making room for extra surgeries, and generating bigger income.
RFID technology enables the storing of patient IDs inside a tag and the ability to scan those IDs quickly with mobile terminals. When patients don’t have to fill out repetitive forms and when all records updates are added to operating lists controlled by clinicians, medical procedures are more efficient.
Apart from the opportunity to easily navigate medical records using RFID technology, healthcare workers can also identify equipment and medications or quickly find the right colleagues to ensure the best emergency care.
Some wearable devices in the healthcare industry are developed and used to monitor hospitalised patients. For example, a device called LIVE is placed under mattresses to measure movements, sleep, heart rate, and other vital signs.
Interconnectivity Is the Next Big Challenge for Wearable Health Technology
Since medical wearables take a variety of forms, the question of unified standards has become a top priority for developers. It makes sense for hospitals to connect all sensors by means of a Wireless Sensor Network. Wireless communication between the different channels gathering information is crucial for future healthcare.
Creating a protocol for data exchange, compatible with existing sensors, is also a major challenge. There are some improvements, such as a standards framework called FHIR, but a lot of work remains when it comes to building a universal system which connects sensors with patient records. Maintaining control over various sensors will make medical services more adaptable to both particular patients and the external environment.
In our article about healthcare app development, we argued that the integration of mobile apps with medical or fitness wearables is crucial; patients should have their data accessible on their phones. However, the current state of healthcare applications isn’t satisfactory, people cannot currently use apps for all their health-related concerns. Fitness programs are way ahead in terms of usability at the moment. Those that balance ease-of-use with science are the most probable link between casual tracking practices and health measurements focused on clinical outcomes.
At MadAppGang we developed a running app called SmartRun, which crafts recommendations based on data received from a heart rate sensor. Healthy running practises is a natural part of the lifelogging trend which makes people more aware and promotes self-care.
We also built a pill management app called Secure My Health. It tracks pill intake and allows doctors to remind their patients if they fall behind schedule. Another health solution we developed focuses on better clinical trial recruitment. In Evrima, we implemented AI to analyse current clinical trials and to help find suitable participants.
If you’re thinking about making a health-related mobile solution which involves wearables, we’re ready to guide you through the development process. Please get in touch with us if you need an experienced team by your side who knows the industry well.
13 August 2019