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Are wearables the future of healthcare?

wearables
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Wearables aren’t just for fitness and fun, they’re helping to improve healthcare, too. Emily Spaven reports. 

FitBit wearers and smartglasses enthusiasts rejoice – wearables are back in fashion.

Having fallen out of favour in 2015 – Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies put wearables just past the “peak of inflated expectations” and approaching the dreaded “trough of disillusionment” – wearables had a successful year in 2016.

Here’s what Google, Apple and Microsoft are up to in healthcare

While 2015 saw funding to wearables startups drop 63% when compared with 2014 (according to CB Insights data), 2016 has seen some monster funding rounds into this area, including Magic Leap’s $793.5m Series C, Jawbone’s $165m Series F and Thalmic Labs’ $120m Series B.

A report from market research firm IDTechEx claims the global wearable technology market is currently worth over $30bn and will grow to over $40bn in 2018 and over $150bn by 2026.

Wearables designed for entertainment gained in popularity in 2016 – VR headsets were everywhere – but myriad devices with health applications were developed and gained traction, too.

Jenny Thomas, director of HealthTech accelerator programme DigitalHealth.London, said wearables are starting to play an important role in empowering patients and challenging the current patient-clinician dynamic in the health and care systems.

“It’s about changing the dependency on clinicians and enabling patients to have more choice and feel in control of managing what could be distressing, difficult, complex and/or long-term conditions,” she said.

Adherence and tracking

Non-adherence to prescribed medicine is a huge problem for the NHS and other healthcare systems across the globe. It can lead to hospital readmissions, clinical complications and other negative patient outcomes. With this in mind, wearable devices have been created to remind patients to stick to their treatment plans.

The Global Kinetics Corporation, for example, has created The Parkinson’s KinetiGraph, a wrist-worn medical device that collects movement data which is shared with a physician, plus it vibrates to remind the wearer to take their medicine and make a record that they have done so.

Going that step further is Japanese giant Otsuka Pharmaceutical, which is now working with startup Proteus Digital Health on a smart pill embedded with a sensor that can send alerts when it’s swallowed, or when a dose is missed.

Other wearables have been created to make it easier for patients to manage their health conditions. 11 Health, for example, has created a sensor device that tracks ostomy bag volumes and alerts the patient when it is nearly full. The ostom-i Alert Sensor uses Bluetooth wireless technology and an app to capture information about its use. This data can then be shared with medical professionals, who can decide whether intervention might be required at any point.

HealthTech startup AliveCor has created a medical-grade EKG band for the Apple Watch. It’s expected to launch with FDA approval in early 2017 and is designed to help wearers detect abnormal heart rate and rhythm, plus detect cardiac arrhythmia conditions that can cause stroke. The accompanying Apple Watch app automatically processes data from the sensors in the Kardia Band and sends these to the wearer’s doctor.

Women’s health

There are various wearable devices that are geared towards women’s health in particular. There’s the Ava bracelet, which is worn only at night and tracks nine physiological parameters, including body temperature, and uses these to highlight the most fertile days in a woman’s menstrual cycle.

There’s also Livia, a gadget that clips on to the wearer’s trousers, with two electrodes placed on the abdomen, and promises to get rid of menstrual cramps. The device, which is currently under development having raised over $1.4m on Indigogo, looks similar to a TENS machine and works by blocking pain signals from being sent to the brain.

On the detection side of things, Nevada-based Cyrcadia Health has developed a smart connected bra with inbuilt sensors that can keep track of the wearer’s breast health. The iTBra detects changes in breast tissue and can help to spot breast cancer in its early stages.

While the likes of the iTBra and the Kardia Band can detect medical issues and help patients get treatment before it’s too late, others can promote a healthy lifestyle, preventing certain conditions from developing in the first place.

Fitness

Fitness buffs have been using activity trackers for a good few years now, making these the most popular type of health-orientated wearables by far. Most come in the form of a wrist-watch-type device that measures heart rate, daily steps and calorie burn.

The biggest players in the space are the likes of FitBit and Garmin, with the former making some big power plays last year, such as its acquisition of Pebble in December for a rumoured price of $40m.

Other companies are getting in on the action and making headlines, for example we saw Google buy smartwatch OS startup Cronologics in December, and Vancouver-based fitness tracker creator Mio Global gained $15m (£12m) in funding in November.

These devices are not only useful for making sure users achieve their fitness goals, they can also help people understand correlations between certain actions and outcomes. For example, a sleep-tracking smartwatch can help show how poor sleep impacts mood, or how walking an extra 5,000 steps per day can boost blood sugar levels.

Andre Chow, co-founder of Touch Surgery, a surgical simulation training app, said: “We believe fitness trackers are finally at the stage where initial usability issues have been resolved and most user privacy concerns alleviated. This means we are now able to collect data about human health on a scale that was never possible before.

“With the recent advancement in machine learning, our algorithms are now becoming useful in transforming this data into powerful predictions. These predictions will act as early warnings for consumers, alerting them to take appropriate action before serious intervention is required.”

Insurance

Improved detection, adherence and monitoring aside, wearables could also have an impact on your pocket, with some in the insurance field suggesting they could be used to help generate lower premiums. The suggestion being that exercise targets could be set by the insurer and, if the customer sticks to the prescribed levels of activity, health insurance premiums would remain low.

This is already the case in the US, with healthcare company UnitedHealth Group offering a programme that provides employees with wearable devices and enables them to earn financial incentives of up to $1,460 per year for meeting specific walking goals.

Mark Andrews, director of general insurance at consultancy firm Altus Consulting, said: “Customer engagement and a willingness to share data is a key area for insurers. In the health sector, there is a genuine value add for customers ready to hand over their data. Improved health, lower premiums and fewer claims is a great business model for all parties.”

A promising idea, but perhaps one that brings us one step closer to Orwell’s 1984 nightmare.

Security

As Andrews said, wearables typically generate large amounts of useful information, but it’s not only useful to physicians and insurance providers, but criminals too. The devices harvest personally identifiable information, sensing and transmitting data about the wearer, including location, movement and more.

“The biggest security risk that I see right now, both to consumers who buy wearable devices and to companies that sell them, is unauthorised exposure of the personally identifiable information associated with them,” wrote Stephen Cobb, Sr security researcher at ESET, in a company blog post.

Wearables are an ideal target for the data crime industry, which is fueled by information about people, Cobb added. “Data criminals targets endpoints and servers. Wearables are endpoints that rely on servers for many of the benefits they deliver. In other words, the wearables business will be targeted by cybercriminals.”

The solution? As with any company working in the digital realm, they need to make sure the appropriate protections are in place and consider seeking third party advice – it may be costly, but not as costly as a customer data breach.

There may still be some concerns about the security of wearables, but there’s no doubting there are some fantastic companies out there working on some life-changing products. Having a great product unfortunately doesn’t mean you get immediate early traction, though. There are some hurdles to overcome first.

Barriers

For a lot of HealthTech products and devices to become a success in terms of traction, they need the NHS to recognise them, issue approval and start adopting them.

“Clinicians across the NHS are under ever-increasing pressures, with growing patient demand and stretched budgets, while patients and ground staff are pushing for solutions and improved services. Despite this unsustainable situation, we are realistic that there are multiple barriers to adoption,” explained Thomas, from DigitalHealth.London.

She said part of the problem is the NHS simply lacks awareness of the new innovations that are out there, but often it is much more complex.

“We are realistic that, as with any new innovation, we are disrupting established ways of doing things. The question now is how we initiate this dialogue to establish trust with the NHS for this new way of working, given its potential benefits for patients and staff,” Thomas concluded.

While encouraging the NHS to trial and adopt new technologies is one hurdle faced by startups in this space, another is the often prohibitive cost of researching and developing wearable smart health gadgets. The stakes are high in this area of tech – put out a product that isn’t perfect and people’s health is at risk, so the testing and approval phase is long and arduous – and rightly so. But this also means it’s expensive.

However, it must be recognised that the convenience, functionality and expediency granted by such technology is indispensable. The NHS is already overstretched, so getting technology to take some of the weight off seems like an effective solution that can’t come soon enough.

This article first appeared on edition 13 of Tech City News’ popular print magazine – The HealthTech Issue

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