• Nick Walker

The State of Health Wearables

The most prevalent application of the wearables industry is the activity-tracker watch used as an aid in living a healthier lifestyle. Some might track steps as a game or competition among friends, but the majority of owners wear them to gain an edge in staying on top of their fitness.

The wearables industry is one that has failed to maintain the momentum garnered from early adopters and the ensuing fitness tracker craze. The issue with finding sustainable growth for the category has lied in its lack of a principal use case. While a daily step count is nice to have, it’s not a necessity. Health care, in contrast, is a matter of life and death.

As new technologies become more accurate and refined, it opens the possibility for devices that were once reserved for medical offices to migrate to wearable devices. The continuous monitoring thereby enabled allows doctors to make more well-informed clinical decisions and more accurately track the development of health conditions. Ideas abound on what the application of wearable technology might become in the future, however the following are some of the most promising areas that are either already available or nearing full development.

Glucose Monitoring

According to the World Health Organisation, the global prevalence of diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. Until recently, diabetes patients would have to either draw blood or prick their finger to gather a blood sample to check their blood glucose level. Recent technological advances in continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) have made the process of tracking glucose levels less invasive, more convenient and accurate.

Fitbit already has an active partnership with a leader in CGM technology, Dexcom, and hopes to continue improving the technology to bring further convenience to patients. As the technology continues development, the required hardware should reduce in size enough to be comfortably worn on the wrist.

Blood Pressure Monitoring

Worldwide, raised blood pressure is estimated to cause 7.5 million deaths annually, about 12.8% of all the total deaths. Globally, the overall prevalence of raised blood pressure in adults aged 25 and over was around 40% in 2008. Current blood pressure monitors require the cutting off of circulation, usually with a cuff on the bicep, to make a measurement. This often requires patients to visit a doctor’s office to take a reading. Companies such as Omron are already seeking FDA approval for wristwatch-like blood pressure monitors discreet enough to be worn throughout the day. Accurate measurements are achieved by measuring subtle pressure changes on the surface of the skin, eliminating the need for cutting off circulation. A continuous blood pressure monitor that works effectively from the forearm would allow for more information with which doctors could base diagnoses, saving time and also saving lives.

Sleep Apnea

It is estimated by sleep experts that nearly 1 billion people worldwide have sleep apnea. The disease leads to complications such as atrial fibrillation, stroke, and depression. Those suffering from sleep apnea can stop breathing while asleep, often for over a minute, depriving the brain of oxygen. Sleep apnea frequently goes undiagnosed for long periods of time due to patient unawareness, misdiagnoses, and denial. A wearable device that could accurately detect sleeping and breathing abnormalities would greatly improve the quality of life of millions of patients. The good news is that current wearable technologies can accurately detect the condition, with a little help from an AI neural network called DeepHeart.

A recent study conducted with University of California, San Francisco, found that DeepHeart was able to analyse a single week of wearable data and detect subtle patterns associated with sleep apnea. Of the 6,115 Cardiogram users in the study, 1,016 were accurately diagnosed with sleep apnea. DeepHeart was trained on 70% of the participants, sifting through a total of 140 million heart rate measurements, and had an accuracy rate of 90% while detecting the condition.

As the power efficiency and processing power of wearable devices improves, it is likely that a smartwatch will be able to perform the necessary tasks to detect conditions such as sleep apnea without the need to be paired with a more robust computer. Until then, cloud-based solutions such as DeepHeart will continue to develop consumer confidence in the quality of medical diagnoses enabled by wearables.

Final Thoughts

In the near future, wearable manufacturer business models will transform from cyclical models revolving around device sales to recurring revenue models centred around personalised health and treatment plans and data-as-a-service. There will always be a market for basic fitness trackers that allow users to track steps, but in the coming years, consumers will also begin to see wearables with the potential to save their lives.