By PEARL AUSTIN
The healthcare industry is rapidly undergoing a digital transformation. From patient care to healthcare supply chains, emerging technologies are leading the way in innovation and growth. One key disruptor, however, that is revolutionizing healthcare today is wearable technology.
While wearables have mostly been marketed for the fitness industry, they've also been gaining momentum in the healthcare industry – becoming directly involved in improving services. Here we will discuss the technology behind these wearables, and enumerate some of their current and potential applications in the medical field.
How Wearables Work
The broad category of wearables, which includes smartwatches, fitness bands, and wireless earbuds, is part of what’s called the Internet of Things (IoT). A meta-study of healthcare wearables published on Science Direct notes that the technology was made possible by the advances in miniaturization of electronic-based components and improving connectivity technologies.
The discovery of flexible printed circuit boards and rigid-flex PCBs have made it possible for manufacturers to achieve the more compact form factors found in wearables. Unlike the rigid boards of your laptop which are flat, flex PCBs are three dimensional and can accommodate more components without requiring additional space. This has allowed health wearables to contain the same advanced technology that is found in smartphones and computers making them much more capable at performing different functions.
Today, manufacturers have the ability to pack powerful sensors into anything you might wear. Wearables that are available in the market range from fitness trackers and watches with ECG monitoring capabilities, to anti-fall wearables for the elderly, and smart fabrics that track your movement. Some devices have been now been developed for healthcare professionals to monitor the walking patterns of patients.
The Possibilities and Benefits of Health Wearables
As wearables become ubiquitous – with fitness trackers alone expected to reach around $67.9 billion by 2025 – what does the healthcare industry stand to benefit from these devices? Here are five of them:
Health awareness and prevention
On the surface level, there’s been a shift in wearables that focus on wellness to those designed for real-time tracking of patient vital signs. Having this many people tracking their own vitals radically changes the overall relationship between individuals and their health. For health professionals, this means an increased chance of preventing late diagnoses. Today, wearables directed at detecting Lyme disease and even Alzheimer’s are also under development.
More efficient healthcare system
Some scientists are even going further than early detection. Healthcare researchers are looking at the generated data from the sensors to personalize health services. The continuous monitoring of human physical activities and behaviors through wearables would save millions of lives as well as make the healthcare system more effective.
Fall identification is one of the leading benefits of wearables. With an aging population in developed countries, the average patient's risk for chronic conditions, falls, disabilities and other adverse health outcomes will increase. Wearable belts and pacemakers, which have integrated fall detection mechanisms, will be crucial in helping the elderly move around safely.
Chronic disease management
Low-power wearable ECG monitoring systems and those with heart rate variability monitors are already in the market. These can enable medical professionals to assess patient heart activity outside of a laboratory or clinical environment. Similarly, studies have found that wearable skin patches are helpful for managing health outcomes among diabetes patients. With more wearables targeting specific diseases and monitoring broader body functions, the more chronic disease patients can benefit from the technology.
Clinical trial data collection
With more people using these wearables, it’s now easier than ever to use the data to do research. Apple has recently released an app called ResearchKit, which connects researchers to potential participants through their smartwatches. Within minutes, scientists will have access to thousands of volunteers’ data for the research. This trend signifies a new era of more effective and more objective research tools and processes – largely benefitting the healthcare industry and the general public.
Once wearables were meant to enhance lives, now they are actively saving them. In today’s digital society they could become the new frontline of healthcare.