Taking the pulse of wearable devices

Wearable devices first entered the consumer health market as monitors of activity and sleep patterns. Increasingly, they are helping people to take more control of their health and wellbeing. The next phase involves applying the technology ‘smartly’ to move into diagnosis, greater connection between patients and health care providers and integration into a wider range of everyday products, from weighing scales to contact lenses.

Disruptive technological innovations are changing consumer healthcare. Wearable devices represent one such innovation, being uniquely poised to bring real diagnostic value to users. They are able to gather patient information non-invasively. They offer constant, objective monitoring and have the potential to produce vast amounts of data that patients, researchers and doctors can analyse to find patterns and better manage many chronic, or other, health conditions.

US sales of wearable fitness devices jumped from $43 million in 2009 to more than $850 million in 2013 and they are expected to grow 35 per cent – to $1.2 billion – in 2014. The shift from focusing on fitness and general wellness to playing a greater role in the healthcare arena will not take long to achieve.

Our research shows that, within the next three-to-five years, devices will be embedded into clothing to track various health statistics across multiple conditions. While still an emerging technology that is being used by small numbers at present, wearables are destined to have a positive impact on health.

“Surgeons could view critical patient data on the wearable device, allowing them to perform their procedures without having to look at nearby monitors constantly”

Wearable devices are moving beyond fitness bands and smart watches. For instance, Accenture teamed with Philips on a test to use smart glasses in a surgical environment. The technology enabled hands-free access to vital patient information. Surgeons could view critical patient data on the wearable device, allowing them to perform their procedures without having to look at nearby monitors constantly. Doctors could also monitor a patient’s vital signs remotely or enlist assistance from medical colleagues in other locations.

Another collaboration between Accenture and Philips resulted in a concept that connects a wearable, head-mounted display to Emotiv Insight Brainware, a device that scans EEG brainwaves, to enable individuals with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Motor Neurone Disease) or other neurodegenerative diseases to issue brain commands to control Philips products, including a medical alert service, smart TV and lights. By controlling these commands, ALS patients regain some control of their lives.

These are just two examples of the potential impact wearable devices can have for both healthcare providers and patients.

Trends

Several trends in digital health help to explain the strong interest in wearables, and how they will be more than a temporary trend for fitness fanatics. A few examples include leveraging social networks and gamification incentives to engage consumers, using remote monitoring for diagnosis, and robotics for treatment.

It’s not so much a question of developing new technology, but of how to more easily use existing technology so that it helps us manage our own health better – or getting the ‘smarts’ out of devices already available to consumers.

Digitally-savvy consumers are taking control and they want solutions that allow them to take charge of their own health. Healthcare companies should address this demand.

Engagement

They want transparency and access to their own health data. They seek to know more than just what their pulse and blood pressure might be on a given day and they want to know what actions they have to take to improve a health problem.

Health-orientated platforms, such as Wii Fit, the social network app Fitocracy, and the medication adherence platform HealthPrize, incorporate gamification tactics that keep users engaged. These technologies take advantage of the competitive nature of users, tracking their health-orientated progress and sharing results to motivate them.

Diagnosis

Once consumers have access to health data, they want to put it to good use. They want to get results that they can act on to improve their lifestyles. This is where the devices’ remote monitoring and diagnosis capabilities will have a big impact. They will eventually help diagnose patients for specific conditions, even at the point of care. And they will be less intrusive, moving more seamlessly into our lives. Consider, for example, a children’s asthma inhaler that could send a warning to parents when it is pumped more than three times in quick succession, signalling a possible health problem.

While devices like smart watches already have health tracking integrated, in the next few years, a broader range of products, such as contact lenses, mirrors, and scales will track health statistics across any condition.

Recently, the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research announced a collaboration aimed at improving research and treatment of Parkinson’s disease through the use of wearable technology that delivers information about patient symptoms to an open-source platform. This includes a multi-phase research study which will use an analytics platform that detects patterns in patients wearing a data-collection device. This effort is expected to significantly advance the diagnostic work conducted by researchers and doctors.

Additionally, research is underway to develop a smart contact lens that monitors glucose levels by analysing tear fluid in the eye. It will connect wirelessly with a mobile device. The lens will also correct the vision of those living with presbyopia who can no longer read without glasses.

Treatment

Over time, wearables will smoothly integrate life-saving technology into daily routines. Eventually, healthcare providers will be able to track medication usage by a patient, intervening to diagnose and develop treatment plans that will effectively improve patient health outcomes.

Providers will gain new insights from the deluge of information available to them, by integrating medical data with behavioural data. This will open up new opportunities in diagnosing and treating patients. Doctors will be able to see immediately if patients are taking their medication. Keeping patients adherent to their prescription protocols, through sending them electronic reminders for example, would bring cost savings and improve health outcomes.

Our research recently found that the vast majority of patients in the US who are taking long-term, short-term or lifestyle medications believe that pharmaceutical companies should provide services that complement the products they provide. Among the services that patients most expect or want, but are not receiving, are measuring and tracking alerts, such as for monitoring of blood glucose levels.

Many patients expect to receive these types of services and are looking to pharmaceutical companies to be part of the solution. A tremendous opportunity exists for pharmaceutical companies to become more engaged with the patients they treat and to truly understand how to help deliver a better patient outcome and they should start interacting with patients as soon as they start taking a medication.

Infrastructure

To enable wearable devices to connect with doctors, hospitals, clinics and other caregivers and transmit vital diagnostics, there will need to be improvements in technology infrastructure and data connectivity. A key challenge facing the use of smart devices for monitoring and diagnosis involves setting standards and making the devices and platforms with which they connect interoperable. The ease with which this happens will help determine whether wearables can meet diagnosis and treatment objectives.

“In the next three-to-five years, we expect to see interconnected pervasive healthcare devices continuously directly monitoring patient health”

In the next three-to-five years, we expect to see interconnected pervasive healthcare devices continuously directly monitoring patient health. These devices may feed into an electronic health records data collection system synched to clinical decision support systems and physicians who can then trigger an intervention.

Beyond five years ahead, expect to see comprehensive patient data stored in a network of connected systems, aggregating and leveraging even non-traditional health data, such as grocery purchases, to give a complete view of the patient.

Consumer adoption of network-connected technology is on the rise, with 69 per cent of consumers planning to buy an in-home device in the next five years. By the end of next year, about 13 per cent of consumers will own an in-home device connected to the internet, such as a thermostat or in-home security camera.

It’s not a question of ‘if’, but rather ‘when’, for wearable devices to move beyond monitoring to playing a very active role in the diagnosis and treatment of health conditions. The exponential growth and adoption of this technology is moving fast.

Issues

There are still issues to be addressed, including security, privacy, standards, connectivity and interoperability. Also, key stakeholders will have to be aligned to the patient’s objectives – pharmaceutical and diagnostics companies, healthcare providers and insurers – each of which may have competing interests.

If companies are as smart as wearable devices, they’ll listen to the demands of their digitally-engaged consumers.

About the author:

Shawn Roman is a managing director at Accenture Life Sciences and leads the North America Commercial Services practice. He has more than 20 years of experience in consulting for biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies, supporting their marketing, sales, service and supply chain operations. His areas of expertise include multi-channel marketing, digital and content management and commercial capability strategy.

Shawn Roman is based in Arlington, Virginia and holds a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Amherst College in Massachusetts.

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