Medical Wearables: Future or Fairy Tale?

By Collette Johnson, Medical Business Development Manager, Plextek Consulting

According to Deloitte, the global mobile health (mHealth) market should hit $26 billion by 2017, whilst the medical wearable device market is expected to be worth $5.8 billion globally by 2019. Encouraging progress in sensor-enabled patient monitoring, diagnosis and treatment, which is only set to continue evolving over the next 10 years, is helping to fuel this massive market growth.

These latest medtech innovations are shaping our future and will change the way in which everyday healthcare is delivered to us. The freedom of self-monitoring, enabled through the latest sensor technologies, will deliver a genuine step change in patient empowerment, enabling everyone to take more control of their health.

The sensor potential

Sensor technology is attractive as it can enable the creation of medical devices that can detect and record real data from the physical environment such as motion, pressure or heat. Such devices can provide patients with the freedom to carry out independent medically valid monitoring at home, and facilitate the ability to take their own personal test samples without attending the hospital/clinic.

Enabling this patient self-sufficiency will play an important role in reducing the burden on the healthcare service, in terms of time, cost and resources, and ultimately improve the patient experience.

Consumer well-being devices such as FitBit and Apple iWatch have made positive headway during 2015, encouraging people to monitor their personal fitness, focusing on exercise, weight, food and sleep. However there is a limit to the usefulness of these technologies in a clinical environment. Ultimately there is still so much more capability for wearables to grow and evolve into truly life-changing pieces of technology in a fully-fledged professional medical environment. Some of these applications are discussed below.

The future for wearables

  • Hydration:

Following the boom in sales of fitness wearables, the next innovation in wearables will be hydration monitoring. Plaster technology will enable this, using an adhesive plaster-type monitoring device placed on the chest to monitor a patients hydration levels. This is taken from heart acceleration, humidity, pressure and temperature and can accurately measure water levels in the body.

  • Dementia, obesity and the vulnerable:

The exciting potential for wearables also extends to help combat emotional or psychological issues such as obesity, giving the unique opportunity to record emotional data and analyse behavior. Wearable and sensor integration into ‘every day life’ will in turn provide solutions for conditions like Dementia as day-to-day wearables gives patients back the independence often lost when suffering from this kind of condition. This same concept can be applied to the ageing population and for those on life support as wearables and monitors facilitate remote monitoring without causing distress or panic.

  • Aftercare:

Built-in sensor technology such as knee braces for home physio exercise will also enable greater visibility of whether the treatment is being carried out correctly. This kind of feedback will also enable the NHS to work out its expected budgets more accurately, dependent on how much aftercare patients will need.

The most outstanding aspect of these innovations is that, monetarily, the potential for these kinds of technologies could save the NHS as much as 20% per year.

The elephant in the room: enforcing regulation and accountability

 It’s clear medical wearable devices have huge advantages to the NHS and patients. However as the number of wearable products on the market multiplies, issues are arising from a growing band of devices marketing as ‘reliable’ health indicators, but manufactured with little or no medical regulation or specifications behind them.

As such, the industry will be held back until it can get a good grip on what constitutes a genuine medical wearable device. This involves classifying the difference between a wearable that produces symptom analysis and treatment options and one that simply provides the raw data without analysis or solutions. Clear boundaries must then be enforced with stronger structures of accountability to avoid liability disputes between device makers and the communications infrastructure providers those devices use.

It is vital that medical device regulatory bodies offer these guidelines not just for the patient, but for the doctor, the manufacturer and the software developer too. It is this consistent approach to data, information privacy and security across technologies that are an important factor in facilitating its continued uptake and use.

Additional advisory guidelines regarding the collection and accumulation of wearable health data will also be necessary as regulators will need to examine how companies accumulate, store and use personal, and in some cases sensitive, consumer information.

If the industry can crack its regulation challenges, it will allow consumers to feel more at ease with the use of advanced medical wearables and mHealth applications, allowing it to become completely normalised across both the medical industry and wider society. Only time will tell how long this will truly take but at the breakneck speed of technological developments, the medical industry will need to think fast to enable the life-changing benefits of wearable devices.

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