Our wrists are under siege.
By the end of 2015, approximately 84 million wearable devices - from fitness trackers to smart watches and connected bracelets - were sold globally. Gartner predicts that these products will exceed 500 million shipments by 2020 and almost two in five of us will use a wearable by 2019.
Wearables are getting serious
Judging by this year's Consumer Electronics Show and Healthcare IT trade-show, HIMSS, it's clear that wearables are making their way into the healthcare space.
Quell, for example, is an FDA-approved smart cuff that wraps around the leg to relieve pain related to diabetes, fibromyalgia and sciatica. It's available on Amazon. Another offering is the non-invasive, wrist-worn, blood pressure monitor known as the Pulsewave® Health Monitor. Also FDA-approved, it's very nearly as accurate as an intra-arterial blood pressure catheter. Philips' Health Watch is also listed as a medical device - it's designed to be part of an app-based personal health program with the aim of helping people make healthy lifestyle choices and supporting those at risk in managing their own health.
These devices and others like them are great examples of the first wave of what should be considered the next phase of smart devices - the serious, scientifically proven wearables that can make a real difference in people's health. For the moment however, these next-gen, medical-grade, connected health devices for clinical use are few and far between in a sea of dozens of more simplistic wearables that are mainly aimed at tracking the fitness of younger generations. And the real challenge remains: when will the medical community begin to embrace wearables and connect these devices to patient care?
So what's holding serious wearables back?
Developing a successful healthcare wearable is easier said than done. In the industry, there may be a plenty of buzz around healthcare apps, but most of them aren't clinically proven and many are flash-in-the-pan successes with consumers. Wearable technology is in danger of suffering from the same problem; dozens of launches from all sorts of brands steadily whittling down people's enthusiasm for the products. As an evolving technology, wearables are a long way from becoming an everyday part of the healthcare industry.
In order to reach that level of ubiquity, more will have to be clinically approved.
Becoming part of that industry, of course, presents its own challenges. Large medical and pharmaceutical companies hold the keys there. While many of the creators of wearable healthcare technologies are start-ups and fitness brands, they may struggle to develop the technology at the scale and complexity needed for the devices to receive approval for public medical use by national health authorities.
Once more wearables are regulated and respected by the industry, there's another hurdle to jump: convincing consumers to stop viewing them as gimmicks.
A wearable is not a gadget
At the moment, most of us think of wearables as nifty new gadgets. But most people get bored of new gadgets.
Research by the American Council on Exercise found a third of consumers stopped using their fitness tracker within six months of receiving it. Nearly half stopped within a year.
Above and beyond regulation, the most important aspect to take into account with regards to new healthcare technology is to make sure consumers take it seriously and make it part of their daily routine. To do that, wearable devices must integrate with the larger system. Wearable devices at the moment are simply one point solution at which data is collected from an individual and displayed back to them, but that end point is not the end in itself. Wearables need to be capable of addressing and analyzing multiple health conditions; to become a useful tool and monitoring option that doctors trust and one that connects seamlessly to a wider healthcare system.
What will the wristbands of the future look like?
The medically-approved wearables we strap on tomorrow will be trusted and integrated into clinical health programs - and we're already seeing the first early examples of these. One of the latest is a medical-grade, wearable biosensor that's part of a monitoring solution for at-risk patients in low-acuity care settings (like the general ward of the hospital); providing an early warning system that monitors for sudden deterioration so caregivers can intervene quickly.
In a few years' time, serious wearables like this will be part of a wider connected health offering. They'll be able to display information on multiple devices, as well as collating information from different connected devices (thermometers, heart rate monitors, etc.), brought together on an open, secure cloud platform.
These wearables will also help us determine what is "normal" for an individual. In the case of elderly at-risk people at home, this might be spotting when they haven't got up in the morning, or are getting up too frequently at night, and flagging the discrepancy to a care-giver.
There will also be different grades of wearables, depending on the needs of the wearer. For the younger, healthier types, who need less careful monitoring, the wearable technology will be basic; for the elderly or those with chronic conditions, the wearables will be truly medical-grade and capable of more sophisticated tracking.
We're not at this stage yet, but we're not far off. Wearable technology is the subject of plenty of competitive interest from many companies; so it's likely that these devices will quickly be getting both smarter and more affordable.
There is a lot of potential for wearable technology to support and improve healthcare, but challenges remain. It will be a few years yet before wearables are considered as essential to our daily lives as smartphones or as trustworthy as our doctors. But we will get there.
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