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Wearable devices are going beyond skin deep

By Brian S Hall / December 23, 2013

Wearable devices are going beyond skin deep

With so much being written about every new computing technology coming out of Silicon Valley, along with all the reports of angel investors pouring boatloads of money into the “next big thing,” it’s easy to roll your eyes whenever words like “transformational” and “revolutionary” get thrown around. Well, prepare to wrangle your pupils, because the latest wearable devices are nothing short of revolutionary transformations, especially in terms of healthcare.

If popular and affordable wearable devices like the Nike FuelBand or Fitbit Force can motivate more of us to exercise regularly, the payoff is amazing — on both a personal level and across the massive healthcare market. Still not sold? Even The New York Times began singing the praises of wearable devices after examining a recent study on the effects of exercise:

Results consistently showed that drugs and exercise produced almost exactly the same results. People with heart disease, for instance, who exercised but did not use commonly prescribed medications, including statins, angiotensin-converting-enzyme inhibitors or antiplatelet drugs, had the same risk of dying from — or surviving — heart disease as patients taking those drugs. Similarly, people with diabetes who exercised had the same relative risk of dying from the condition as those taking the most commonly prescribed drugs.

In short, drugs and exercise “produced almost exactly the same results.” A $100 pedometer connected to a smartphone via Bluetooth might prove as valuable as prescription drugs, provided the user is properly motivated.

Instead of putting a patient on a lifetime of prescriptions, the healthcare staff can create a daily exercise plan and monitor progress via a wearable device. The device could measures critical body data points and sends the data in real-time to the user’s smartphone and their hospital’s cloud server so the medical staff can evaluate the results.

A study out of the University of Hong Kong has been preaching the wearables gospel since 2004:

Each year, (the) number of deaths caused by cardiovascular diseases and hypertension is estimated to be 16.7 million and 7.1 million, respectively. Population of diabetic adults is expected to reach 300 million by 2025. Innovations in wearable devices for tele-home healthcare can enhance usability, efficiency, and popularity of home-based telemedicine.

These devices not only allow long-term, continuous, and unobstructed monitoring of physiologic information, such as … heart rate (HR), blood pressure (BP), blood oxygen saturation (SaO2), and respiration, but can also provide more realistic indication of the patient’s health status, and information that is otherwise inaccessible in clinical settings. 

The key difference between 2004 and today is there are now over a billion smartphones and tablets in use, most connected to the cloud, with real-time access available across regions and time zones. As long as a wearable can be connected to the user’s smartphone, it can connect with their doctor.

Seeing is believing

According to a recent report from research2guidance, the mobile health (mHealth) market is expected to explode, reaching $26 billion by 2017. The primary drivers will include applications that integrate with user smartphones and tablets, and applications designed specifically for the healthcare industry. It’s no surprise, then, that research firm Frost & Sullivan says that mHealth is one of the primary “hot topics” in the healthcare industry — ahead of cloud computing, eRecords and even regulatory concerns.

Devices that monitor a person’s vital signs — such as the glucose levels of a diabetic — and Bluetooth-enabled health trackers are considered to be of particular value. Such devices offer enhanced knowledge and better monitoring and should help improve efficiency across the healthcare industry. This is just the start.

Take Evena Medical’s Eyes-On Glasses, for example. These optical wearables make it possible for doctors and nurses to see “real-time vascular imaging.”

Evena Glasses

According to the company, the glasses allow the wearer to “see through” the patient’s skin and record the results. The images from the glasses can be sent via Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or 3G to a medical facility or off-site professional for review. The glasses include audio conferencing ability so a nurse can connect with a doctor or hospital in real-time. The glasses can even connect to a hospital’s records system, allowing the wearer to compare results and review the patient’s history. They are expected to go on sale in 2014 for $10,000.

Another trend in the wearable device industry is hardware connected directly to a user’s smartphone. The AliveCor Heart Monitor is a clinically validated electrocardiogram (EKG) that adheres to the back of an iPhone and measures the electrical impulses of the wearer’s heart. And at only $200 a pop, the AliveCor Heart Monitor is actually cheaper than most of the medical equipment you’ll find in a hospital.

The iBGStar Blood Glucose Monitoring System is another device that attaches to an iPhone for a small price (just under $100). This device not only measures blood glucose levels, but also sends helpful reminders at appropriate time intervals. The data is instantly stored on the user’s smartphone so patterns can be determined and results can be sent to the patient’s doctor. In the future, such a system may send a text notification to a user’s doctor if their results warrant medical attention.

Long-time Silicon Valley analyst Tim Bajarin predicts that 2014 will be the year when wearable devices for health and fitness become commonplace:

Wearables, along with Bluetooth-related health devices such as wireless blood pressure kits and wireless blood glucose testing kits, will see serious consumer interest next year.  

This seems like a rather safe bet. The following SlideShare presentation offers even more examples of what’s already here and what’s soon to come.

What’s ahead

The pace of innovation in wearables, the size and importance of the healthcare market, and some rather amazing work in labs across the world may soon alter the relationship between medicine and computers. Researchers are already working on DNA nanobots — essentially, a pill-sized computer — that can be ingested and then deliver life-saving, uniquely personalized medicine to the consumer. The big hope is to trap genetic diseases like cancer at the molecular level.

Take a pill and stop cancer -- that is the promise, at least.

Although we’re not there yet, the industry is moving at breakneck speed to reach these lofty ambitions. Connecting wearable devices to our smartphones, tracking our activities, delivering real-time feedback and improving our health is now an attainable reality for millions of people all across the globe.

And let’s not forget wearables designed specifically for healthcare practitioners. These will enable medical professionals to treat more patients, make fewer mistakes and reach underserved areas, while offering truly personalized care — two revolutions in one.

Yes, it’s easy to get excited about this stuff. I mean, just look at what we already have, and how quickly it’s spread to millions of users. Then see what’s nearing launch and what’s in development, and it’s impossible not to use words like “revolutionary” and “transformative.”


See how mobile devices can alter user behavior for the better at