Look around you. Doesn’t it seem like everyone is sporting a Fitbit® or other wearable technology? The fact is, consumers are quickly embracing devices that help them monitor fitness metrics. There’s a feel-good bonus in a long schlep from gate to gate in an airport, or a marathon shopping spree, when a compact wrist gadget applauds the impressive distance walked along the way. People are taking to wearable tech as they have adapted to smartphones— incorporating them as an integral piece of their everyday lives.
Familiarity with these popular products opens a world of possibilities for developing wearable devices that can improve healthcare beyond patients’ self-monitoring. Wearable technology has the potential to revolutionize aspects of the healthcare system by doing things such as assisting doctors in operating rooms, and providing real-time access to medical records. (See Figure 1)
The newfound ability for patients to monitor their own health is a plus: informed patients are usually better equipped to partner with their physicians in following treatment plans as well as actively managing their health to achieve better outcomes.
The upshot is that wearable devices can, and will, serve more critical functions. Devices have been created that track more than activity levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Some also measure oxygen saturation, blood sugar, and other health indicators that provide clinicians with data they can use to monitor patient conditions and treatment response. New and future development of different types of wearable sensors will become instrumental in early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of diseases. And the progression of on-the-go medical care holds great promise for contributing to the national imperative of reducing healthcare costs and supporting other measures like population health management. (See Figure 2)
The Impact on Medical Device Developers
However, medical device developers have their work cut out for them in designing wearable products with the level of accuracy and reliability needed for clinical applications. Practical application of this technology requires reliable connectivity and security assurances, especially in light of the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations, presenting challenges for the exchange of healthcare data. Miniaturization, networking, intelligence, digitalization, and standardization are some of the top technology issues that developers are working to address. As data collection moves to wearables, patients will demand more aesthetic solutions, whether they’re looking to make a fashion statement (as with the Apple iWatch® and Fitbit craze), or just want their medical devices to be camouflaged or invisible.