Health Wearables: Linking Medicine and Data Connectivity

Healthcare wearable watch controlled using smartphone

We live in a world of relatively powerful mobile devices. Today’s smartphones carry the same specs as full desktop computers of a now bygone era, with additional technologies, such as the internet, that further enhance its universality.

In the same sense, modern healthcare may have started its revolution in early business computers, but mobile technology developments had significantly improved its related technologies. In fact, in a digital data-driven society, portability may be an important design factor for healthcare hardware today more than ever.

As such, health wearables may perhaps transcend from being a convenient niche option to a natural necessity, further linking modern medicine and data connectivity in the future.

What is Health Wearables Technology?

Illustration of Various smart devices connected with each other for health monitoring

The straightforward and self-defining answer would be that it is any type of technology related to medicine or healthcare that you can wear. But more specifically, health wearables are designed to collect, receive, and relay personal health data within a form factor that the person could add to the body as an accessory.

For example, even if regular contact lenses are a type of “wearable technology” designed to aid someone’s eyes, they don’t fit into the technical category of being a health wearable. Unless integrated with some other system, it does not have any sort of default method to process or collect data independently.

On the other hand, a portable insulin pump with internet connectivity is considered a health wearable. While insulin delivery may be manually done, blood sugar data readings provide the user with better assessments of their current health status, plus the added bonus of saving any moment of data online to be referenced later.

Because of the sheer amount and type of data that health wearables can deal with, there are a plethora of designs and functions that will cater to just any type of information related to the user’s body. In fact, depending on how the collected data is handled, variations may exist even between devices that collect the same type of information.

There are also countless innovations implemented in health wearables over the past few decades, in accordance with advances to telecommunications technology and internet protocols in general. Often, this made health wearables even more compact and portable. At other times it had their designs overhauled to meet the new data transfer standards of today’s bustling electronic world.

Advantages of Health Wearables

Heart health monitoring using smartwach and smartphone

Aside from the most obvious benefit of portability, there are a number of important advantages that health wearables have that can provide tangible benefits to users as a whole. These are:

  • Real-time monitoring – health wearables basically allow patient data to be monitored in real-time at each moment, or at least during the entire time the device is turned on and active. This is especially crucial for time-sensitive functions, such as fall detection, where a quick and instant response can mean the difference between life or death for the elderly during emergencies.
  • Multi-functional – if smartphones are pocket computers, then health wearables are comparable to multi-functional electronic swiss knives. There may be medical devices that are more focused features than others. But there really is no technical limit to the types of data that can be collected. Even directly-worn sleep trackers, for example, still track and monitor data such as eye activity, blood pressure, pulse, oxygen levels, and so on.
  • Ease-of-use – more often than not, the portability of health wearables also goes hand-in-hand with the relatively low level of complexity of the device itself. For example, a body-attached oscillometric sensor can simplify blood pressure measurement by simply detecting blood movement through your wrist’s brachial artery.
  • (Mostly) Non-invasive – perhaps one of the best conveniences of modern health wearables, many related devices are usually built to be worn directly. For instance, many body-patch devices use measurement methods that only require the skin’s surface to work (epidermal). Not only are they less hassle to use, but they also pose less risk, as the level of complexity potentially reduces the number of failure points.
  • Integration-friendly – data connectivity technologies now allow for seamless transfer of data between related hardware. The simplest example is a physical activity performance tracker such as Fitbit. The data that it collects is always relayed directly to a smartphone, which is then transmitted and saved into a larger, online database for the user to universally access, or to conveniently hand-over to a medical professional should it become necessary.
  • Feeling of control – not exactly a direct benefit, but the psychological relief that health wearables provide (at least when used privately) may also contribute to the overall efficiency of its use. Data trust issues aside, health wearables can help users feel that they have more autonomy over their health data since the information is presented to them before them as they occur.

Types and Forms of Health Wearables

Fitness tracker smart watch

Health wearables come in many shapes and sizes, with each form factor custom-made to fit into a particular portion or part of the user’s body. Some of the standard and most common ones include:

Wrist-worn – this is typically the most common type, and the first thing that comes into mind when any tech is mentioned as a “wearable.” Monitoring/data collection is usually done through the same spot where it is worn and allows for the calculation of many factors such as sweat levels, dryness, blood flow, and sometimes even muscle activity.

Rings – a bit simpler than wrist-worn wearables, rings offer a more focused scope of data to collect. Of course, such a form factor cannot display data in detail. If not using simple indicators, most of them are connected to another mobile device through an app.

  • Go2Sleep – an integrated sleep tracker by SLEEPON
  • Blinq – activity pedometer that doubles as a fashion accessory as well

Head-worn – this type of health wearable is mostly limited to ear and eye accessories, though certain exceptions, such as the upcoming Neuralink, exist. Rather than mere data collection, enhancement is also provided by these wearables, using the very same type of data they are accumulating.

  • Livio AI – smart hearing aid. Uses acoustic data from the surroundings to control incoming sounds.
  • AR Field Assistant Eyewear – not exactly a product name, but a concept, where AR-enhanced eyewear can offer additional information to medical professionals during a procedure (in the near future).

Body-attached – this will be any other health wearable worn on the body or stuck on the user’s outer skin. Wires can occasionally be used, since the main device is attached and not firmly worn as an accessory.

  • Nutromics smart patch – this is a biosensor that is conceptualized as a non-invasive dietary biomarker measurement and detection device. Still in its testing phases, but could be commercially available very soon.

Semi-implanted – more sophisticated measurement devices would occasionally require penetration through the skin (subcutaneous) to gain access to internal body parts. Already at the edge of our definition as a health wearable, but still functions quite similarly nonetheless.

Portable tools – not directly worn per se, but are usually carried around in pockets or other smaller storage compartments. These are still somewhat considered tech wearables due to the same type and level of function they offer to users.

  • AliveCor – a personal EKG/ECG device. Instead of subjecting the user to multiple electrodes (attached on a big machine), both thumbs are simply pressed onto the gum pack-shaped device to get a relative EKG/ECG reading. It is not worn, but rather kept in a small pouch or in the user’s pocket.

Interesting Health Wearable Tech Trends

Development, proliferation, and adoption go hand and hand with any kind of innovation introduced to the general population. The same is true with health wearables, and over the decades, three of the most intriguing trends that have emerged from it are:

The Internet of Healthcare Things

The biggest innovation in health wearables that made its growth exponential, was the universality of internet access. The internet of healthcare things (IoHT), therefore, was an inevitable derivative of the idea. 

For one thing, early detection and prevention through online user monitoring are enough of a benefit by itself to warrant its use and development. But it goes even beyond by improving healthcare access (you are always connected), simplifying certain measurement procedures, and potentially reducing medical costs.

“The most important criteria of IoT in the health sector for sustainable development is economic prosperity.”
-The Rise of Internet of Things (IoT) in Big Healthcare Data: Review and Open Research Issues

In fact, according to a research paper published almost four years ago, IoHT and economic prosperity can go hand-in-hand. This means that the incentive to make better use of these portable devices goes both ways, which once more enhances the growth potential of its related technologies even further.

Employee Fitness Tracking

Laptop with location tracking on monitor

In a comprehensive report by the Washington Post last year, it was revealed that employers are more than willing to spend a premium to invest in health tracking systems in general. This is primarily due to the “resulting explosion of information about their workers”, which are used to either save up money on insurance fees or straight-up offer the data to related organizations. 

Quite surprisingly, many employees are also more or less willing to sign up for digital health monitoring due to the included incentives. Plus, they could also use the free health tracking information themselves if they want to.

“The goal is to help people get and stay fit and save on health-care costs. An employee who barely budges from their desk could be next in line for a medical intervention. “
-Washington Post, “With fitness trackers in the workplace, bosses can monitor your every step “

To be fair, being tracked by your boss with a Fitbit on your wrist does mean you’ll have fewer chances of using your free time for “other purposes.” But for the corporate structure as a whole, the investment benefits of predicting health issues on employees does seem very promising.

Better Health Assessment Changes the Insurance Game

Elderly couple looking at smartwatch to monitor health

As hinted by the previous discussion, the most interesting trend in health wearables is its addition to health insurance policies. Wearable data, as it is, “provides granular insights ” into the client’s condition and lifestyle.”

For the insurer, the accumulated data will allow more customized solutions and policyholder details. This includes the development of purchase incentives, which have already proven to be a sufficient motivator for the insured to regularly meet their fitness goals. Doubled with the basic benefit of just being healthier in general, and the increased conditions for insurance claims never seems to be of a significant hindrance for their clients.

This kind of robust [mobile] data can make it possible for an insurer to better identify risk factors and create more granular customer segments.”
– HIT Consultant blog, “Wearables Could Transform Insurance from Reactive to Proactive.”

In addition, instead of passively waiting for something to happen first, insurance policies can potentially transform from being reactive to proactive. The term “usage-based insurance” was mentioned, described as a new type of insurance that effectively uses customer data to get a much better grasp on their risk profiles. 

… with the caveat that insurers are still going to gain profit with all of this, of course.

Issues Regarding the Use of Health Wearables

man sleeping with health monitoring smart watch

Unfortunately, even with all the developments and advancements achieved today, the implementation and use of health wearables are still not perfect. Even today, it faces many different challenges that are quite inherent to its nature as an information collecting device:

User Acceptance – consistent and continuous data collection is the key to making health wearables work as intended. However, some people may be resistant to the idea of being strapped to a tracking device 24/7. With potentially large gaps within its intended data curve by not wearing it all the time, accurate analysis could become difficult, or even impossible. Worse, the concerns of these people aren’t entirely dismissable because…

Security – the question of how data is ultimately transmitted is an issue that is yet to be completely solved due to the inherent nature of IoT. True, the HIPAA is the first line of defense against any incident of fraud or theft in healthcare data. However, loopholes between manufacturers may exist, and there may be instances where the data provider themselves experience security breaches. Moreover, patient records themselves may not be treated as confidential enough, and that may cause anxiety when using the associated health wearables.

Ethical usage – forget 24/7 monitoring. Even the basic idea of tracking someone’s movements, activities, emotions, and vital signs is a point of contention in health wearables. Should users just accept that losing privacy is part of the cost paid for better health? Would their recent activities be potentially used against them, much in the same way social media is now used to track employees? In extreme cases, the stress of dealing with these issues may even negatively impact the data accumulated by the devices themselves.

Data trust issues – think of websites such as Facebook selling user data to potential companies. Although intrinsically part of user agreements, the fact that companies will still offer your data in some form or another to other interested business entities or organizations later on is a concern that might place doubt towards the device’s effective use.

Final Word

According to Statista, the number of people using any kind of wearable tech (not just healthcare-based) is set to increase by more than 50% in the next three years, towards 2023. Within these, it is conceivable that a significant number are going to be health wearables, simply due to the increasing ubiquity of such features on consumer-rated products like smartwatches and AR headsets.

So health wearables, like them or not, are here to stay. Niche as they remain to be in the general scope of healthcare and medicine across the planet, they will still be very important tools in how we gather and process medical information from now on.

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