UK: Will Wearable Technology Transform Healthcare?

Last Updated: 11 July 2014
Article by Karen Taylor

Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

Wearable technology is an industry that continues to grow and adapt to meet the ever-changing needs of our world. Many health- and fitness-related technologies have multiple applications and encourage wearers to be more engaged in their own fitness, help modify behavior by reminding wearers to exercise or take medication.

They also provide a platform for patients and healthcare professionals to share data and collaborate on health strategies. Indeed, wearable technologies geared towards patient engagement and helping patients and consumers to stay healthy and fit, have the potential to support government's ambition to improve the health of the nation.

The wearable technology market is expected to come into its own over the next 12 months and become a 'key consumer technology'. One of the reasons for this is the entry of most of the major technology vendors into the wearable technology space, including Google, Microsoft, Apple and Samsung, which is transforming people's views on the benefits of wearable technology.

Deloitte TMT Predictions 2014 predicts that smart glasses, fitness bands and watches, should sell about 10 million units in 2014, generating over $3 billion . The pace of growth is likely to expand with the global market for wearables in health and fitness predicted to reach 170 million devices by 2017.

This expansion in wearable technology is leading to an explosion in data consumption and storage. Beyond the data that is already held on personal phones or tablets; wearable devices, are collecting a whole host of extra information. Companies making the devices, or providing software for them, see further potential in helping customers store and manage this data.

The fitness and wellness market uses clips, straps or bangles to record and analyse activity in increasingly hi-tech ways. The most popular devices help users track and monitor sleep patterns, fitness levels, calorie intake, and bodily functions; and those which encourage users to take an active role in improving their overall health by providing goals, challenges, and social interactions to make the experience more fun. Most of these products have solid backgrounds in exercise and exercise science. Other products include digital blood pressure device and a blood glucose testing kits tied to smartphones, utilising digital technology to power new health monitoring tools. Importantly, wearable technology puts a patient's real-time personal health data in their own hands. Ten or 15 years ago, patients relied solely on a doctor's professional opinion for feedback on treatment and health. Now, patients can monitor their own health from home or on the go. They can educate themselves and make decisions on issues that affect their overall health and wellness.

Views on what works best are constantly changing, with most wearables having inherent strengths but also weaknesses. As a result there is no clear market leader or clear winner in terms of impact on personal health. Some studies have shown that they encourage people to exercise more but evidence on sustainability is lacking. Furthermore, as the technology is evolving very rapidly, today's fitness 'bands' are likely to be old hat in under a year.

Today's much hyped wearable is undoubtedly the ambitious Google Glass - a lightweight, wearable, eyewear technology comprising an optical head-mounted display, which shows information in a smartphone like, hands-free format). Wearers communicate with the Internet via natural language voice commands. Google Glass has only recently gone on sale in the UK (priced at Ł1,000) and while the take up is, as yet, unknown; researchers currently estimate that global shipments might reach 6.6 million units in 2016, compared to only 50,000 units sold in 20121

Apps are crucial to the success of Google Glass, and healthcare developers are rising to the challenge, enabling new and existing applications to work with the device. Indeed, Glass has the potential to be particularly helpful in supporting healthcare professionals to work more efficiently as they don't have to stop what they are doing to use the device. For example, doctors often have to look away from patients in order to type something or look something up, Glass, operated by voice command, allows doctors to look up information without having to break eye contact; even in sterile environments such as operating theatres.

Indeed, wearable health records may well become the preferred way for healthcare professionals to interact with health data; enabling doctors to record consultations, check-ups, surgeries, and other medical procedures – with the patient's consent – while storing videos, photos, and notes about the procedures in the patient's medical history file. This information can then be shared directly with patients online using cloud-based storage platforms.

Furthermore, the hands-free aspect of wearables, such as Glass, is being trialed by surgeons in the US enabling them to bring up diagnostic images in the viewer and compare them with the actual surgical sites. It also enables them to capture the full details of the operation, which can then be used to educate and train other surgeons. However, hospitals that are experimenting with Glass are doing so very carefully, obtaining patient consent before procedures, using encrypted networks, while seeking to comply with regulations that protects patient privacy.

Despite the projected growth and burgeoning consumer interest in everything from fitness bands to smart wrist watches to Google Glass-like hardware, history suggests that the healthcare system and indeed, other government agencies, are likely to be slow to adopt.

The question that remains is how can the potential of wearable technology be realised in an industry that struggles to embrace technology in its interface with patients and the public? What is needed, are leaders who understand fully its potential and have the vision to see its application to healthcare. This doesn't mean sidelining human interactions as kindness, compassion and care cannot be replaced by machines. Nor can such technology replace the clinical judgment that comes from years of training. What is does mean is embracing the use of technology to remove the routine and functional aspects of healthcare, and genuinely support staff to work differently.

Footnotes

1. IMS Research, now part of IHS - upside forecast for 2016 is 6.6 million shipments – the pessimistic forecast for 2016 is closer to one million shipments through 2016. See also:. https://technology.ihs.com/432910/spurred-by-google-glass-ihs-forecasts-nearly-10-million-smart-glasses-to-ship-from-2012-to-2016 

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