EXCLUSIVE: The growing role of wearables in healthcare
Dr Chris Vincent, Principal – Healthcare Innovation at PDD, discusses how wearables are playing a growing role in enabling users and clinicians to stay informed, reassured, and independent when monitoring certain health conditions.
In recent years, wearables have started to play a pivotal role in the lives of patients. From the management of chronic conditions to making sure that we drink enough water, wearable and mobile devices are revolutionising the way that healthcare occurs.
Wearables can improve the lives of patients and caregivers and, crucially, in the context of waiting list and appointment backlogs as a result of the pandemic, reduce the burden on healthcare systems at a time when they are most stretched.
From smart textiles to electronic tattoos, the increased use of wearables in healthcare has been driven partly by remarkable developments in technology. These range from leading-edge advances, like augmented reality and body-powered devices to traditional products like watches or GPS devices, adapted and repurposed to provide new capabilities.
But the change has also been underpinned by the fact that people are increasingly willing to share their health data and take an active role when it comes to staying healthy. Tools like GPS tracking and activity and heart rate/oxygen saturation level monitoring increase people’s ability to self-manage conditions and can support disease prevention.
Such tools can also be used for remote diagnosis and collect data in a way that was hitherto not possible.
Wearables and digital healthcare in the context of COVID-19
Recently, Deloitte Global predicted that 320 million consumer health and wellness wearable devices would ship worldwide in 2022 and by 2024, that figure will likely reach nearly 440 million units as new offerings hit the market and more healthcare providers become comfortable with using them.
At the same time, opportunities for new product development are opening up with a range of technologies that lend themselves to varying forms of infection control, as we all look to stay safe as we come out of the pandemic.
One example is Immutouch, a smart band that vibrates when users touch their face, potentially preventing them from catching diseases. After downloading the Immutouch app, the band can be calibrated by bringing the hand closer to the face, which will cause the device to vibrate, thanks to a gravimeter placed inside that uses a personalised algorithm.
This type of solution may be helpful for those working in a frontline role. It can also provide potential benefit to those working in customer-facing industries like retail, manufacturing and public transport.
Another example is VivaLNK’s Continuous Temperature Sensor patch, designed for remote, 24-hour monitoring of axillary body temperature. This type of solution has a broad purpose – it could provide a monitoring tool for those who are undergoing immunosuppressive treatments and could also support the conduct of clinical trials. The product range employs an eSkinTM Technology, which is a breathable film substrate with integrated sensors and circuits. This illustrates one of the big advances in this field – the shrinking of sensing technology means that it can be worn for increasing amounts of time, enabling new applications.
Wearable technologies have the potential to profoundly impact our lives and support decision-making. In a way, it is about relaying information back to the user as well as recording information from them.
For example, Mojo provides smart contact lenses with built-in displays. Created by optometrists, medical experts, and technologists, Mojo lenses can help users access important notes without the distraction of a mobile device. The lenses also display health-related information, such as heart rate, and navigation and sight-enhancement features.
Wearables in the context of chronic conditions
There is a bigger picture to be considered in terms of managing and reducing the occurrence of long-term and chronic conditions.
Wearable technologies can prevent, reduce, or delay the exacerbation of chronic conditions through real-time monitoring. The use of wearable devices means that symptoms can be picked up earlier, and that patients can monitor their own health and capture data to aid physicians in their treatment and prevention plans.
Good examples are wearable technologies that monitor someone’s activity, with monitors and smartwatches becoming increasingly popular.
Being active plays a major role in the reduction of risk for many chronic conditions, and the use of wearable devices have been shown to reduce sedentary behaviour and improve overall wellness.
In both the UK and the US, schemes have been rolled out that provide incentives to encourage patients to hit their daily step count and activity levels, factors which contribute significantly to chronic disease prevention such as obesity and diabetes. Such incentives can be in the form of vouchers or discounts, or funding towards health insurance. This incentive model can encourage people to remain active and reduce the risk of those susceptible to certain chronic conditions.
Monitoring through wearables also facilitates shared decision-making between patients and healthcare professionals and is a valuable tool to promote adherence and compliance.
Enabling patients to monitor and potentially improve a chronic condition through tools such as wearables gives them a greater sense of control and empowerment.
Continuous glucose monitors are a perfect example of how a wearable can reduce the burden and increase the level of monitoring. With the device constantly tracking glucose levels throughout the day and night, an app can notify the patient of highs and lows. Patients are therefore provided with a clear image of their blood sugar levels without them needing to carry out regular finger-prick testing.
As the device allows continuous monitoring throughout the night, they are provided with a higher volume of data and therefore more consistent monitoring of their blood sugars in a way that would not have been previously possible.
Benefits are not limited to glucose monitoring. For some conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, simple wearables with real-time mapping, voice systems, and the ability to activate an emergency call can greatly increase a patient’s independence and reduce the burden on their caregiver.
By being able to track a patient during their walk and communicate with them if necessary, their risks are reduced, and the patient is provided with freedom for an extended period of time (i.e. they can be alone if they want to).
Some chronic conditions may be less obvious; for example, those that are at risk of heart disease can benefit from something as simple as a step counter.
As technology moves on, there is potential to integrate multiple sensors and leverage existing platforms, such as phones to develop a rich picture of, for example, the link between cardiac health and lifestyle. With this understanding, appropriate interventions can be targeted accordingly.
It is becoming increasingly clear that there is a lot of potential in wearables in terms of pre-empting and proactively managing chronic conditions, as well as managing and mitigating the impact of COVID-19.
In a healthcare setting, there are additional advantages to the use of wearable technologies, including:
- Supporting condition management – i.e., wearable devices can contain sensors that allow for tailoring of support and treatment.
- Supporting the move to a pre-emptive model of healthcare – for example, by helping people to look after themselves and avoiding more significant interventions such as surgery. Wearables can also form part of a behaviour change approach that promotes a healthy lifestyle.
- Improving outcomes, by collecting data in a way that was not previously possible (e.g., home use body-worn ECG monitors).
- Engaging communities. One of the great things about wearables is that they allow for “maker” communities – working in hackspaces with open-source tools that share ideas in an interdisciplinary setting – to come together and approach a challenge from a fresh perspective.
Although there is a need to explore usability and acceptance of this type of technology (alongside impacts on safety and efficacy), the opportunity for wearables to have a positive impact in our healthcare ecosystem in the long term is well worth the investment.
The road ahead might be complex, however, the opportunity for wearables to have a positive impact in our healthcare ecosystem in the long term is well worth the investment.