As digital health expands its future, a very exciting new technology has emerged in the form of wearable technology. Wearable technology includes items, such as jewellery, glasses and clothing — worn on, in and around the body — incorporating sensors and other electronic technologies. Approximately 10 million wearable devices will be operational in the UK by the end of 2016, with five million sales and the overall figure tripling to almost 33 million units in the next four years. Fitness trackers will lead the way in terms of volume with sales of 1.7 million expected in 2017. Other than fitness bands, smart watches, clothing, and people tracking devices have started being used.
Though fitness tracking devices are the most popular, wearables have become less expensive, less intrusive and more intelligent and is now used to monitor sleep patterns and flexible patches have been developed that can detect body temperature, heart rate, hydration level and more. The artificial pancreas is all set to revolutionise diabetes care. From true wearables through to sensors in contact lenses and stick-on skin patches, even medicines contain digital markers that can send signals to phones and monitors, the quest for knowledge about people beyond the confines of clinics and hospitals is getting more interesting. Wearable technology is now being trialed in improved patient education and real time guidance and advise.
Data emerging from wearables are now being used by clinicians, insurers, policy makers and researchers alike to make important healthcare related decisions. Though there is tremendous amount of excitement regarding this technology, adoption has not come without caveats. The two main factors limiting widespread adoption is skepticism regarding accuracy regarding the data and security of the data. Though there are anecdotal evidences of wearables even influencing lifesaving decisions, evidence is a bit thin regarding reliability in all situations. In a situation, when things go wrong, it may be difficult to fix accountability. Secondly, security and confidentiality of the data collected is seen as an issue. There is always a concern that intimate, personal data of people may fall into the wrong hands.
Currently the focus has been mainly in ‘fitness technology’ or ‘health trackers’. These are essentially younger, healthier people who wish to improve their lifestyles and health. There has been a fair amount of success in this group and more people have been motivated to make necessary behavioural alterations and get active. However, it still remains to be seen if this success can be translated to people who are not in the best of shape, have multiple medical issues, who most likely will benefit from continuous monitoring and remote intervention. This is an area which is in need of more careful design thinking and solutions. This is difficult because on one hand is the adaptability of more ill patients to wearables and on the other hands imposition of more stringent regulatory guidelines and laws to prevent improper use.
These are however early days and there is a lot of investment both financial and intellectual in this field. There is immense optimism and with developments underway, the current gap between health tracking and actual use in healthcare will soon be breached.