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Can wearables really transform healthcare?

The impact of wearables on our health or simply a fad? Author: Russell Ings

I, like many of my friends and my wife, are obsessed (in a healthy way, or so I like to think) with the various stats we can glean from our multiple devices. How does my cadence compare to yours or the guy who runs the same route every Wednesday? How many steps did I do yesterday compared to the same day last week? Do my heart rate and pace correspond to the elevation?  Our wearable devices offer us insight into our health and behaviours more than ever before. Some of it merely used to satisfy our egos or competitive natures, but is any of it actually going to transform our health or the healthcare industry for the better?

At CES, the Consumer Electronics Show and the place to be for the world’s latest and upcoming electronic gadgets, wearables were everywhere. When you think of wearables, I imagine the Apple Watch and Fitbit jump to mind, but at CES there were things like smart belts and shoes, indicating the continued development in this area. The belt will notify the user if they have eaten too much and the smart shoes will notify a designated person if the wearer has fallen over. There was also a device for urinary incontinence which actually won the ‘Best of CES’ award for Digital Health and Fitness. This device helps the user monitor bladder fullness which prevents accidental leakage. I imagine this sort of device really has the power to change a patient’s quality of life for the better. You can read more here.

The potential impact to a patient’s life is quite remarkable and new ideas are coming to market every day. We are even developing technology solutions for the problems caused by technology solutions themselves. As we become more reliant on our devices and our addiction to being connected 24/7, healthcare problems related to poor posture have emerged. A company in Canada has developed a pair of glasses that monitor your posture while using your device. If your head drops to an unhealthy ‘low’ angle then an LED will flash on the glasses arm to warn you to move to a more upright position, while also sending a notification to your device to correct your posture.

Even the traditional, fitness tracker wearables can have a significant impact on our health. The benefits of keeping active for protecting against growing healthcare epidemics such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and mental health are well known. However, knowing about something doesn’t always correlate with action and perhaps it is the motivational side of these devices that really help patients to improve their lifestyles in this way.

Although the impact of these devices on a patient’s lifestyle maybe obvious, how useful might this information be to the healthcare industry on a larger scale? Could the information and data from our devices help HCPs diagnose us quicker and release some of the burden on our struggling healthcare systems? Realistically we are not very far away from a time when we can walk into our doctors’ surgeries with a wealth of personal health data ready for analysis. Will their job become easier with this reliable and objective data in front of them or will it take away from the personal, one-to-one doctor-patient relationship? Could it even be a case of information/data overload? Whatever we think, we can’t ignore the power of this information when it comes to understanding our health or the health of others.

With an ageing and growing population and the rise of chronic conditions anything that helps keep us healthier for longer or allows us to take our health into our own hands can only be of benefit to healthcare and society as a whole. An example of this is the MP Tom Watson, who was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes in the summer of 2017. He decided to improve his health by introducing regular exercise and changing his diet, which lead to him losing 44.5kg (7 stone) in weight and reversing his diabetes, so he no longer has to take medication.

Who knows, one day we may only rely on our doctors to analyse the information from our devices. Small robots, which are called nano bots, could be circulating our bloodstream detecting abnormalities and alerting us to a problem that we simply take to our doctor for treatment. Does this responsibility for our own health and a reliance on technology excite or scare you? Does it take away from the human touch of the patient-doctor relationship that contributes to positive patient outcomes in other ways? I guess we have to wait and see what the future has in store before we know for sure.

6th February 2019

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