This article by Ambra Health CEO, Morris Panner, was originally published in Forbes on November 20, 2019.
Earlier this year, Juniper Research released findings predicting that healthcare spending in wearables will reach $60 billion by 2023. That’s a big number, especially when you consider how far wearables have come in just a few years.
The concept of wearable technology that could advance the user’s health goals really caught fire with the popularity of smart devices like the Apple Watch, which boasted the ability to track the wearer’s steps and heart rate when it was first released in 2015. But with each passing year, new wearables emerged and existing ones developed more impressive features.
Today, the Apple Watch Series 4 and 5 are designed to perform an electrocardiogram right on your wrist with its ECG app. This is a great boon to patients concerned about atrial fibrillation, as it allows them to more easily monitor cardiac rhythm (and subsequently provide their doctor with the ECG for diagnosis).
Another significant entry into the market, released just this year, is the Omron HeartGuide, the first FDA-approved smartwatch capable of reading your blood pressure. Simple to use: The wearer just presses a button, elevates their arm, and must stay still for 30 seconds to get the reading. This could be a godsend for people with hypertension, diabetes and various heart conditions who need to be vigilant about their blood pressure.
Hearables: The Latest New Thing In Wearables
Hearing aids and earbuds have been around for a long time, but “hearables” take those devices to the next level. Many people use hearables to listen to music or conduct phone conversations, but they have a number of healthcare-related applications as well.
Naturally, helping those who suffer from hearing loss is at the top of that list, as many hearables aim to create better-than-ever sound for the hard of hearing. In 2018, Starkey Hearing Technologies released Livio AI, a high-performance hearing aid that uses AI technology to provide a better experience in noisy environments and greater clarity of speech. The Livio also has some very interesting additional features like an app that rates the wearer’s physical and brain activity and a system that can detect a fall and then send an alert.
Heart-rate tracking is a common feature among hearables, but a few, like the Cosinuss, can be applied to measure body temperature, acting like a thermometer to monitor childhood fevers.
Many can also be connected to voice assistants that can provide health-related reminders about when to take medication or when to go to an appointment.
Wearing Tech On Doctor’s Orders
This isn’t just about satisfying consumers who are casually curious about their vitals. Wearables are increasingly becoming a part of a patient’s actual health plan as designed by their physician.
We all know what it’s like to have a symptom or problem that we can’t necessarily replicate on demand at the doctor’s office. Wearables enable the patient to capture health data on a daily basis, which can then be brought to the doctor to provide a more complete picture of a particular condition or issue. It’s an excellent way of giving healthcare providers more information to work with, as well as encouraging patients to play a more active role in their own treatment.Potential Downsides
Advances in wearable technology are impressive, but some of these great new functionalities come with caveats. Apple Watch’s ECG app, for instance, generates a single-lead ECG, as opposed to the standard 12-lead one you might get from a medical professional, so this app won’t identify heart-related critical conditions, including stroke or heart attack.
In some cases, the “wear” part of “wearable” needs some work too. In his CNET review of the blood pressure-reading Omron HeartGuide, Scott Stein warns that the device is quite large and bulky in a way that might make it undesirable for many people to wear regularly as a watch.
These are important reminders that it’s still early years for wearables. They have a ways to go to achieve the optimal balance of easy wearability and effective functionality.
More Innovations (And Savings) To Come
Caveats aside, the possibilities for wearables seem endless. Many current capabilities will be further optimized, and new ones are on the horizon. For example, when Bragi realized some users were modifying their wireless earbuds for tinnitus relief, the company announced it would be working on developing that and other enhancements, such as the ability to measure one’s hearing sensitivity.
And wearables not only have the potential to improve quality of life — there are financial benefits as well.
“Earlier detection of chronic diseases drives costs savings and better health outcomes for patients because they can benefit from a course of treatment earlier,” writes Waqaas Al-Siddiq in Medical Economics, going on to note that wearables offer post-diagnosis ROI as well. “When doctors can more easily manage patients remotely, they can improve their in-facility workflows to allow them to spend more time with patients needing immediate attention.”
Wearables are now beyond being a cool consumer gadget — they’re becoming integrated into our healthcare system. So even if you have yet to buy your own personal wearable, it may not be very long before your physician prescribes you one and your insurance company offers to cover it.