Wearables and big data: friends or foes?
What benefits can wearable technology bring to healthcare? Dirk Poschenreider asks whether the growing pains and challenges it presents have been fully addressed.
A lot of progress has been made in health wearables since the basic medical alert bracelet; technology has gone micro-digital and patients today wear electronic bracelets, miniature heart rate monitors, wrist and heart monitors, calorie burners, wrist bands, smart shoes, smart clothing, smart contact lenses, to name a few.
Established companies, such as Apple (Apple Watch), Under Armour (Health Box) and Samsung Electronics, are entering the market. Samsung is taking a giant leap into the market of digital health, for example, pumping $50 million in to the launch of its Samsung Digital Health Initiative.
It’s also a thriving market for young and innovative startups such as Walk With Path, which has developed a smart shoe to help elderly, ill and disabled people walk without fear of falling over.
Manufacturers of medical devices have been working with healthcare providers so that patients can be monitored around the clock, away from the hospital setting. Health monitors are nothing new; they first appeared in the fitness industry three decades ago and were soon adapted by cardiologists to monitor patients’ heart rates and rhythms in their own homes. However with advances in electronic technology, a lot has since changed.
One of the latest areas being developed in the wearable space is clinical research for life science companies. One of the biggest issues is the high failure rate of new drugs during clinical development, but big data and wearables can be leveraged to increase the value of the insights from these trials, as well as simplifying the data collection process. Big pharma is developing connected devices, such as pill boxes and inhalers, most of which work via mobile apps on smartphones to transmit the patient data.
Today there are wearables in almost every speciality in medicine that are designed to track some type of function or metric in the patient, relaying the information to the healthcare provider. Smart watches can monitor symptoms for a variety of disorders (eg diabetes, Parkinson’s disease). The newest diabetic monitors can instantly send blood glucose levels via WiFi or Bluetooth to a physician or nurse, who can then suggest a change in the treatment regimen.
However, the most used wearables are the hundreds of health apps for smartphones. These provide services ranging from telling patients where the nearest A&E is located and when it is least busy, to self-diagnosis by clicking on a list of symptoms followed by referral to the nearest healthcare provider. Other apps provide comprehensive medical information, drug lists, what to eat, what to drink, what exercise to perform, when to see a healthcare provider, what medications to take and when, and so on.
The hope is that wearables will lead to better health outcomes and help promote preventive health. Many come with alarms and bells to signal if readings are too high
or too low and the patient’s health is at risk. Manufacturers are hoping that consumers will use them just like their smartphones. In addition to ensuring that people maintain good health, they may be able to predict disease onset and other health issues far in advance.
With big data collection on this scale, the question of privacy arises. How can confidentiality and security of health information be maintained? People are always losing their mobile devices, so the same could happen to smart watches and bracelets. The security challenge with wearable devices must be overcome. Sensitive data isn’t always encrypted and sometimes there isn’t even a password or a pin number on the smartphone or tablet. Plus the companies themselves can be hacked and data stolen.
Further factors to consider, that are rarely mentioned, are that the majority of wearables (smart watches, for example) are not lightweight, nor are they cheap. Some devices cost over $3,500 and, in the US, this cost is not covered by any health plan or by Medicare. In addition, more evidence needs to be gathered to support the notion that wearables can lead to better health or prevent disease.
Finally, there is the question of patient adherence. Will the public use these wearables consistently? People already have their hands full with smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Will one more device added to that list be one too many? Until cheaper and smaller monitoring wearables are developed, it is not likely that all consumers will be willing or able to purchase such devices to help change their lifestyles and behaviour.
About the author:
Dirk Poschenrieder is director of the health business unit at Medienfabrik Gütersloh (part of Gruner + Jahr: a Bertelsmann company).
He is a pharmaceuticals expert with a wealth of experience in the healthcare sector. Before joining Medienfabrik, he held roles including director of strategy at Razorfish Healthware and manager of digital marketing at Janssen.
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