There was a time in the not too distant past where a rubber bracelet that could count your steps was the pinnacle of wearable technology. Businesses were reaching sky-high valuations on the back of fitness tracking technology, and new companies were rushing into the market looking to replicate their success. Everyone from hardcore exercise enthusiasts to lackadaisical middle schoolers could be found with a fitness tracker on their wrists. Then things started to change. 

Rubber straps began to be replaced by premium leather wristbands. Simple pedometers made way for heart rate sensors and music streaming applications. Over the course of only a few years, smartwatches with cellular connectivity and virtual assistants became common accessories for consumers, and fitness trackers began their descent. This shift has been rapid, with recent releases from top manufacturers containing features nonexistent on wearables from just a few years ago. It also begs the question, where are wearables heading? 

Medical Wearables

The Future of Wearable Technology

At the core of the wearables industry is the principle that an accessory such as a watch can aid in living a healthier lifestyle. Some might track steps as a game or competition among friends, but a majority of activity tracker owners wear them to gain an edge in staying on top of their fitness. The wearables industry is one that has failed to maintain the momentum garnered from early adopters and the ensuing fitness tracker craze. The issue with finding sustainable growth for the category has lied in its lack of a principal use case. While a daily step count is nice to have available, it is far from a necessity. Health care, in contrast, is a matter of life and death.

As new technologies become more accurate and refined, it opens the possibility for devices that were once reserved for medical offices to migrate towards the wrist. The continuous monitoring enabled by a wearable device allows doctors to make more well informed clinical decisions and more accurately track the development of health conditions. Advanced medical tracking compact enough for daily wear creates a scenario mutually beneficial for both manufacturers and the end consumer. Sooner rather than later, wearable devices will be able to perform tasks straight from the pages of a science fiction novel. However, with technology already available or nearing full development, the following areas are some of the most promising frontiers for wearable technology.

Glucose Monitoring

A recent CDC report found that as of 2015, 30.3 million Americans are living with either Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes. Another 84 million have prediabetes, a condition that if not treated could lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes within five years. Until recently, diabetes patients would have to either draw blood or prick their finger to gather a blood sample to check their blood glucose level. Recent technological advances in continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) have made the process of tracking glucose levels less invasive and more convenient, drastically improving patient outcomes and minimizing the guesswork that comes from making decisions based solely on a reading from a blood glucose meter. Fitbit already has an active partnership with a leader in CGM technology, Dexcom, and hopes to continue improving the technology to bring further convenience to patients. As the technology continues development, the required hardware should reduce in size enough to be comfortably worn on the wrist.


Blood Pressure Monitoring

With one in three Americans suffering from high blood pressure, the need for an improvement in the field of blood pressure monitoring has never been greater. Hypertension puts patients at a higher risk for heart attacks and stroke, and cardiovascular complications remain the single leading cause of death in America. Current blood pressure monitors require the cutting off of circulation, usually with a cuff on the bicep, to make a measurement. This often requires patients to visit a doctor’s office to take a reading. Companies such as Omron are already seeking FDA approval for wristwatch-like blood pressure monitors discreet enough to be worn throughout the day. Accurate measurements are achieved by measuring subtle pressure changes on the surface of the skin, eliminating the need for cutting off circulation. A continuous blood pressure monitor that works effectively from the forearm would allow for more information with which doctors could base diagnoses, saving time and also saving lives. 

Omron Watch

Sleep Apnea

Although less life threatening than diabetes and cardiovascular disease, sleep apnea affects over 22 million Americans, and leads to complications such as atrial fibrillation, stroke, and depression. Those suffering from sleep apnea can stop breathing while asleep, often for over a minute, depriving the brain of oxygen. Sleep apnea frequently goes undiagnosed for long periods of time due to patient unawareness, misdiagnoses, and denial. Waking up tired is a common occurrence, and few perform the required sleep tests necessary to properly diagnose the condition. A wearable device that could accurately detect sleeping and breathing abnormalities would greatly improve the quality of life of millions of patients. The good news is that current wearable technologies can accurately detect the condition, with a little help from an AI neural network called DeepHeart. A recent study conducted with University of California, San Francisco, found that DeepHeart was able to analyze a single week of wearable data and detect subtle patterns associated with sleep apnea. Of the 6,115 Cardiogram users in the study, 1,016 were accurately diagnosed with sleep apnea. DeepHeart was trained on 70% of the participants, sifting through a total of 140 million heart rate measurements, and had an accuracy rate of 90% while detecting the condition. As the power efficiency and processing power of wearable devices improves, it is likely that a smartwatch will be able to perform the necessary tasks to detect conditions such as sleep apnea without the need to be paired with a more robust computer. Until then, cloud based solutions such as DeepHeart will continue to develop consumer confidence in the quality of medical diagnoses enabled by wearables. 

Sleep Apnea Wearable Study

Final Thoughts

Over the past year, smartwatches have continued to take shelf share from basic activity trackers at an aggressive pace. The growing interest in healthcare wearables also seems to signal a shift in consumers from a reactive to a preventative attitude toward healthcare. As technology advances and manufacturers continue to adapt to this behavior change, wearable device companies will begin to be reclassified from consumer product developers to med-tech device companies. This is advantageous for the consumer, as well as for the industry itself. Wearable manufacturer business models will transform from cyclical models revolving around device sales to recurring revenue models centered around personalized health plans, self-insured employers, and data-as-a-service. Deeper integration of wearables data into the healthcare ecosystem has the ability to lower healthcare costs and ultimately lead to better health outcomes for patients. Real-time wearables data can be integrated with existing healthcare management systems to deliver a more complete picture of a patient’s current and future medical conditions. There will always be a market for basic fitness trackers that allow users to track steps, but in the coming years, consumers will also begin to see wearables with the potential to save their lives.

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