Wearables are moving from being a fitness freaks’ gizmo to a clinically meaningful health tracking device. Will the healthcare industry grab the opportunity?
On March 15, Samsung is launching an app, My BP Lab, jointly developed with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), that will help its Galaxy Watch Active users monitor their blood pressure and keep better track of their physical health every day.
Apple’s latest version of its smartwatch, the Apple Watch Series 4, features a built-in electrocardiogram feature and fall detection. The next generation of Apple Watches will reportedly feature glucose monitoring for people with diabetes. It has collaborated with L’Oreal to design the first-ever skin sensor that detects UVA and UVB exposure.
Wearables which have traditionally been a mix of fitness trackers and a fashion statement, are increasingly becoming key serious healthcare tools.
While fitness devices were floating in the market for quite some years now, the technology gained mainstream attention with the advent of the Fitbit and then of course Apple Watch that allows you to track your workouts, heart rate and daily step counters. The next wave of smart healthcare wearables is expected to revolutionize medical science and dramatically improve quality of life, believe experts.
Moving beyond wellness
Last year, health wearables experienced a boom in popularity when the latest series of Apple Watch arrived with a number of futuristic health features, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) sensor which can measure heartbeat. A Statista report has predicted, by 2019-end, revenue of almost USD 4.4 billion will be created from the sales of healthcare wearable device and the number would shoot up to a whopping USD 17.8 billion in 2021.
Another recent survey from Rock Health on digital health adoption found that wearable adoption increased rapidly last year, from 24% in 2017 to 33% in 2018. The use of medical wearables is evolving, with more consumers leveraging the devices to address critical health needs rather than just fitness tracking, according to the survey.
While monitoring physical activity remains the top reason for wearable use, only 44% of wearable owners cited physical activity as the top reason for their wearable use, down from 54% in 2017. This 10% decrease is corresponded by a 10% increase in respondents using a wearable to manage a diagnosis, growing from 20% in 2017 to 30% last year, the report shows.
“Wearables are morphing from their original fitness and wellness label into a tracker that can be clinically meaningful to patients—and perhaps even providers,” the researchers say.
“With the industry thriving and innovating, clearly, wearable technology is moving beyond basic health and fitness devices like the heart rate trackers and daily step counters and providing the ground to enter the mainstream healthcare sector,” believes Subrahmanyam Lanka, Senior VP-Digital Services, Siemens Healthcare.
A good example here would be Google Glass that is helping doctors with surgeries. The eyeglasses-mounted camera allows surgeons to record or livestream procedures and also serves as an auxiliary surgical tool. By wearing the glasses, data such as X-rays or patient notes will appear on the screen in the surgeon’s peripheral vision, allowing them to access this data seamlessly without having to pause during surgery.
“With advanced healthcare applications, such as m-health, telemedicine, and fitness sensors, companies are leveraging data toward preventing and managing chronic health conditions like diabetes and heart problems and this will succeed in the long run,” explains Lanka.
Also in a country like India, wearables can spur the tele-care market. Tele-care involves care of seniors and other people with physical or mobility limitations remotely. This is not only cost-effective, but also allows users to have the flexibility while making sure they get the proper care and treatment.
Security a concern
Despite healthcare wearables showing a lot of promise, there are still plenty of challenges the technology will face in the coming years.
“We are still at very early stages in the healthcare wearables journey, as there is still a gap in trust and adoption,” says Rupinder Goel, Global Digital Technology Leader in IT and telecom and former Global CIO, Tata Communications.
“App and patient data security is a big challenge right now, more so, because privacy laws continue to play catch-up with the healthcare wearable industry. Once these laws are in place and security is assured, wearables may be used to collect data for electronic health records in the future. But we still have a long way to go,” he asserts.
Lanka too believes that security is a major concern when such a large amount of data is in question. “Implementing wearables alone isn't enough to transform the face of healthcare. There also needs to be adequate security and safety measures to protect and prevent the breach of patient data,” he says.
However, there is room for a lot of growth for health-specific wearables. Despite challenges, current statistics and market research present a bright picture for the future wearable industry. “Collaboration among medical professionals, healthcare firms, startups, and the smart consumer will help to develop better healthcare applications and wearables devices. Only then will wearables find acceptance among the medical community and doctors can use them to fight more chronic healthcare issues plaguing the society,” says Mukesh Garg, former Director IT at AstraZeneca.
Leveraging of wearables by healthcare providers
The most critical value proposition for wearables is to provide ‘timely’ help to patients. Data privacy issues apart (in India, it is almost a non-issue), there are a few basic challenges that need to be overcome.
Some of them are:
- Acceptance by the larger healthcare provider community: For that, the doctors need to be convinced that it can do what they are looking at.
- Acceptance by the users: While the change from fitness tool to critical healthcare tool, for the technology community, is just about device capability, when it comes to actual adoption, there’s a huge difference. Most fitness users are younger people who are receptive and comfortable of new technologies; on the other hand, most people who require critical timely medical care are people who are in an older age group. In a country like India, they are still not comfortable in using technology. This is going to be a huge challenge.
- Availability and price points: For wearables to be accepted as real healthcare tools, they have to literally be ‘what the doctor ordered’. The healthcare service providers can be a channel for these wearables. They should see this as a long-term hook for their clients than making margins from the sale. This requires serious partnership between device makers, providers and increasingly healthcare insurance providers, who also need to accept this.
- Standards: Without industry standards, the rapid takeoff will not happen. Whether India needs its own standards or can be part of a global alliance is a matter of debate.
- Regulation: The privacy legislation in India is in the making. The Personal Data Protection Bill 2018 will probably be passed by the Parliament in 2019 itself. It clearly classifies healthcare data as ‘sensitive personal data’. All organizations that collect personal data of citizens must abide by the regulations.
What is needed is meaningful collaboration among all stakeholders to make it work. It will help in:
- Tackling the challenges together
- Present a united voice to policymakers and regulator
- Promote the usage
- Build/initiate standards suitable for India
Challenge before Enterprise Tech
While wearables, by their very basic promise of real time data, can be hugely effective tools for the patients and medical fraternity, as businesses, healthcare providers’ journey just starts there. Beyond the immediate benefit of better healthcare to the individual patient, the true value of wearables will accrue when the industry is able to make use of the data effectively.
The data can give valuable medical insights to the doctors. It can also give valuable business insights to the business. The wearable circle will be completed only when healthcare service providers manage to achieve that.