Wearable Technology: As Helpful As It Seems?
The global wearable technology market was worth $32.63 billion in 2019 and is expected to enjoy a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 15.9% over the next seven years.1 The number of people using wearable technology has seen a four-fold increase over the past five years and is predicted to increase a further 137% by 2024.2
A Growing Industry
Wearable technology has come a long way since the early 21st century when basic smartwatches and fitness wristbands hit the market. Initially thought of as a fad, devices back then did little more than track your steps and measure your heart rate. Now, wearable devices promise to revolutionize the way we track our health and could save the medical industry thousands of hours in diagnosis time.
It’s estimated that wearables can improve time efficiency for healthcare providers and patient quality of care.3 Wearable electrocardiogram (ECG) monitors like the Withings Move ECG can measure ECGs, detect atrial fibrillation, track other body movements and send all the data directly to doctors for assessment. However, with all that data flying around the Internet, the potential for abuse is high.
From Fitbit to Fibrillation: The Evolution of Wearable Medical Tech
Fitbit pioneered fitness wearables in 2007 and remains a key player in the industry, releasing its first fitness smartwatch, the Fitbit Ionic, in 2017.4 Following Google's acquisition in 2019, many users expressed concern that the tech giant will use their private data for advertising and marketing purposes.5 However, since Fitbit sales already began to decline in 2017, there is little evidence to show if these concerns translated into losses.
More recently, mobile phone companies like Apple and Xiaomi have expanded aggressively into the wearable tech market, with Apple dominating a 34.1% share as of 2020.6 There seems to be a new range of applications for smartwatches with each passing year, from calorie intake and sleep analysis to menstrual cycles and fertility tracking. Apple's continued focus on user privacy has resulted in an increased level of trust amongst its users, which will likely carry over to medical data.7
One thing is for sure, the wearable technology industry is becoming increasingly focused on healthcare—but does this equate to real-life benefits?
Wearable Technology in Healthcare
Apple is leading the smartwatch revolution, with over five million devices sold in the first quarter of 2020. That number represents one-third of all smartwatches sold globally. Its watchOS software includes features for tracking steps, cardio, noise exposure, menstrual cycles, heart rhythm and blood oxygen levels. Chinese tech giant Xiaomi's health wearables 'Mi Band' and 'Mi Smartwatch' both have a similar range of features.
In June 2020, Apple released watchOS 7, a significant upgrade to its smartwatch software. This includes a range of new medical health features, including a pulse oximeter, sleep tracking and even handwash monitoring.8
It all sounds very impressive and futuristic, but is it effective? And what happens to all the data that's collected?
A 2019 study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found a "significant increase in daily step count" by adults using wearable activity trackers.9 There was also an increase in "moderate and vigorous physical activity," although only a "nonsignificant decrease in sedentary behavior." Overall, researchers felt that the wearable activity trackers could help health professionals better monitor and support physical activity.
A 2016 report from the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) noted that most entities collecting health data are not regulated by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).10A more recent article clarifies the need to comply with HIPAA regulations but suggests that most device manufacturers still need to implement these measures.11 With some insurance companies making wearable medical devices mandatory, author of a Juniper Research paper, Michael Larner, says: "It is vital that patients are made aware of how their personal data will be used."12
Let's see what other advantages and disadvantages these devices present.
People who use wearable medical devices usually have a better understanding of their personal fitness, activity levels and general health. This awareness alone can often prompt an increase in physical activity and greater concern regarding lifestyle choices.
Unintrusive Medical Testing
Wearable devices provide a less intrusive way of monitoring health by gathering information that, in the past, may have required injections or swabs. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has developed an adhesive film that can detect and analyze molecules present in body sweat.13 The data could help doctors monitor metabolism through glucose and lactate analysis. While still in its infancy, this technology is expanding rapidly and should achieve a higher degree of accuracy in the near future.
Medical professionals can avoid over-exposure to sick patients by using wearable health technology to perform remote health monitoring. Not only does this reduce exposure, but it can help to catch early signs of critical issues that may have otherwise gone unchecked.
In elderly or disabled people, the biosensors in wearable health technology can actively track and transmit any changes in vital signs. Not only can this information alert emergency responders but it can also better schedule checkups, saving time and money for the medical profession.
The WebMD Factor
History has shown that giving average citizens access to large amounts of medical data that they cannot properly assess can lead to anxiety about health and hypochondriac behavior. This is demonstrated by what is known as the "WebMD factor," after the popular medical website.
Medical professionals remain skeptical about the accuracy of the data provided by wearable devices. Until recently, most sensors had a low degree of technological refinement, leaving them open to inaccuracies and misdiagnosis.
The constant monitoring and recording of these devices create an excessive amount of counterproductive data unless we can properly analyze it. Google is developing algorithms to help interpret these large data sets, although some evidence indicates this may increase disparities such as racial bias. This could be due to a lack of population-representative training coded into the algorithm.14
Lack of Privacy
One of the most significant issues hindering the mass adoption of wearable medical devices is privacy concerns. The controversial use of personal data by tech giants like Facebook has led to widespread distrust in corporations to safeguard our information.
Since medical data is highly sensitive, it's particularly prone to misuse or abuse in the event of a data leak. There are fears that this could lead to an increase in rates or insurance premiums for those with compromised health.15
A Promising Future
While the future of patient-generated data and wearable medical devices looks promising, the technology still has a long way to go before it enjoys widespread adoption. Currently, the most apparent benefits are a mild increase in physical activity amongst otherwise sedentary citizens and the ability to track heart rate and other vitals.
However, with private and governmental organizations investing in the industry, we are likely to see significant advances in the near future. Increased interoperability amongst the Internet of Things (IoT) devices is helping to merge science and technology, bringing together some of our best minds for the betterment of humankind.
We expect to see several exciting, innovative and controversial developments to emerge from the wearable technology sector in the coming decade. It’s certainly an industry worth watching!
If you’d like to step into the rapidly growing field of healthcare technology or sharpen your skills in healthcare analytics, consider how EmergingEd’s online health tech courses can prepare you to meet your goals in as little as six to eight weeks.
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/wearable-technology-market
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from globaldata.com/wearable-tech-market-set-to-grow-137-by-2024-but-smartwatches-to-see-a-10-decline-in-revenue-this-year-due-to-shipment-delays-and-tighter-consumer-wallets-says-globaldata/
- Retrieved on August 27, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6746089/
- Retrieved on August 27, 2021, from https://www.alphr.com/fitbit/1006786/fitbit-ionic-price-release-apple-watch/#:~:text=2017%3A%20Fitbit%20has%20announced%20its,sale%20worldwide%20on%201%20October.
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from theguardian.com/technology/2019/nov/05/fitbit-google-acquisition-health-data
- Retrieved on August 27, 2021, from statista.com/statistics/515640/quarterly-wearables-shipments-worldwide-market-share-by-vendor/
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from forbes.com/sites/madhvimavadiya/2019/11/29/why-is-apple-trusted-more-than-google/?sh=160703ca7087
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from apple.com/newsroom/2020/06/watchos-7-adds-significant-personalization-health-and-fitness-features-to-apple-watch/
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6484266/
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from healthit.gov/sites/default/files/non-covered_entities_report_june_17_2016.pdf
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from healthcaretechoutlook.com/news/the-hipaa-compliance-of-wearable-technology-nid-2020.html
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from juniperresearch.com/press/press-releases/healthcare-spend-in-wearables-reach-60-bn-2023
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/adhesive-turns-smartwatch-into-biomedical-system
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from.nature.com/articles/s41746-019-0157-2
- Retrieved on October 24, 2020, from propublica.org/article/health-insurers-are-vacuuming-up-details-about-you-and-it-could-raise-your-rates