Wearable technology today has made inroads into diverse fields such as navigation systems, advanced textiles, entertainment, and healthcare. The integration of wearables into healthcare, in particular, has been a focus of intense research and development in recent times.
Thanks to advancement in electronics, healthcare wearables are gaining in popularity. With plenty of medical applications for wearables, the market is estimated to reach $60 billion by 2023. Designers and engineers are working together to incorporate technology to provide functionalities that can simplify the lives of the user. Rapid technological developments are driving the growth of personalized healthcare services, remote healthcare, smart hospitals, and IoT healthcare solutions.
What is a healthcare wearable device?
Wearable technology comprises smart non-invasive and autonomous electronic devices (equipped with micro-controllers) that can be incorporated into clothing or worn on the body as implants or accessories. Wearable devices perform a particular medical function, be it support or monitoring, over a prolonged time. They use the Internet of Things (IoT) to enable objects to share data with a manufacturer, operator, or other connected devices that track patients’ health stats.
Various application of wearable health devices
Wearable technology is used to monitor a user’s health as it can easily collect data by being in close contact with the user, and aided by the wide availability and low cost of MEMS sensors, energy efficient connectivity technologies such as Bluetooth, and a flourishing app ecosystem
Wearables that track fitness and health information are used to collect biometric data such as heart rate (ECG and HRV), brainwave (EEG), muscle bio-signals (EMG) from the human body, calories burned, steps walked, blood pressure, the release of certain biochemical and time spent exercising. Wearable health trackers monitor the users’ health conditions to support a possible diagnosis and assist with the necessary treatment. Such devices include wearable heart rate monitors, wearable body temperature monitors, wearable breathing monitors, and many others.
These functions are often combined in a single unit by devices such as an activity tracker or a smartwatch used for physical training and assessing overall physical health. These devices help users monitor their daily physical activities (walking, running, and sleeping), track heart rate, and count calorie loss. They are used for monitoring and correcting the lifestyle of the wearer. Thanks to them, people can communicate on the go and take ownership of their health.
Other applications used within healthcare include devices used for measuring blood alcohol content, athletic performance and sickness level, long-term monitoring of patients with heart and circulatory problems, health risk assessment, including measures of frailty and risks of age-dependent diseases. The technology is helping doctors gain more access to patients’ information for an in-depth understanding of their behaviors and improving long-distance care.
The application of wearable technology has also been successfully demonstrated in monitoring systems for biomedicine, assisted living, and eldercare. Researchers are now going beyond data collection development of intelligent algorithms able to glean valuable information from the collected data, using data mining techniques such as statistical classification and neural networks.
Wearable technology is being researched and developed for a multitude of uses, such as assist the visually impaired in navigating their surroundings.
Benefits of healthcare wearable devices
The devices empower individuals with the data they require to gain much better control over their health outcomes. They are high in demand as they provide greater visibility into the status of our health, allowing us to make informed decisions.
The devices are immensely useful for tracking major health indicators of people with health conditions that need close monitoring daily. With the help of wearable devices, patients can share their data with their healthcare providers so that the physicians can have a more detailed understanding of their conditions.
With the massive amount of relevant data collected by wearable devices, healthcare practitioners determine correlations between medical conditions and handle them effectively. For instance, cardiovascular care gets a shot in the arm by examining the data collected through wearable fitness trackers.
These devices enable doctors to track the daily calorie intake and physical activity of patients. Wearable computers offer immediate access to the data of a patient stored in healthcare databases or online. This allows healthcare organizations to collaborate remotely and to streamline healthcare training. For example, the cardiac surgeons have successfully used Google AR (Augmented Reality) Glass for navigating CT scans in hands-free mode while performing coronary revascularization.
There is no stopping for the IoT healthcare wearable devices, and their market will continue to evolve in the years to come. The healthcare industry has quickly adopted these connected medical devices for lowering operational costs and improving efficiency. Thanks to the data and insights the wearable devices provide, they are putting more power in the hands of doctors and patients.
These devices enable consumers to remain accessible to the cloud for transmitting data back to appropriate persons, while healthcare providers gain the information they require and ensure regulatory compliance by protecting patient data. Thus, wearable devices allow consumers to gain insight into the status of their overall health.
In 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a federal agency of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, approved the first wearable for hospital use, an AI-powered solution by Current Health. Tracking the patient’s health indicators with ICU-level accuracy, this wearable device pinpoints threatening conditions well in time. The device helps healthcare providers identify deteriorating states and provides patients with the needed healthcare services on time.
Issues and concerns
Wearables can only collect data, but cannot determine the differing health needs of an individual. While they can collect data in aggregate form, they are unable to analyze or make conclusions based on this data. Understandably, wearables are used primarily to gain information about general well-being. However, they enable the collection of data that can be used to establish patterns with the help of AI and machine learning. Thus the data collected from each individual can be used to predict potential health problems before they arise, paving the way for less expensive treatments. As more and more new devices are being used as well as improved, efforts are being made to ensure that these devices can forewarn that a person is showing specific health issues and give a course of action.
Nevertheless, care should be taken to rule out privacy risks surrounding the personal health wearables that collect sensitive data such as weight management, physical fitness, relaxation or stress management, mental acuity, self-esteem, sleep management, or sexual function.
It is argued that although these devices help track health and promote independence, there is still an invasion of privacy that relates to the sharing of information. This is due to the enormous amounts of data that has to be transferred, which could raise issues for both the user and the companies if a third party gets access to this data. Pertinently, there was an issue with the Google Glass that was used by surgeons to track vital signs of a patient: it pertained to privacy issues relating to third party use of non-consented information. There is considerable vagueness regarding consent as wearable technology can record, but permission is not sought when a person is being recorded.
Wearable technology is greatly responsible for people’s health, so it needs to be well thought of, developed, and extensively tested before it is put to widespread public use. While smart health watches and activity trackers are already being used, innovative healthcare-oriented wearables, in general, need to conclusively establish their clinical dependability and protection of patient’s right to privacy. Pertinently, the FDA has drafted guidelines to decrease risks associated with the health wearables