Just five years ago, health wearables were largely limited to fitness trackers, and were niche devices, with shipments of only 30 million sold to sports enthusiasts around the world. Today, they’re everywhere: an estimate from Statista suggests that as many as 223 million were sold in 2019, and it’s expected that more than 300 million will be sold by 2023. What does this visible trend say about the development of the wearables for healthcare market, and the wearable market generally?
Health apps, and their associated wearable devices, are integrated technology that can be used to monitor individuals’ health indicators, and in some cases alert them to problems. Typically, the devices consist of Bluetooth-enabled physical monitors that are placed on or even in the body, and which are paired with an app on the user’s phone or other device. The app is used to monitor output, identify issues and set and focus the user on specific goals.
The most common health wearables are fitness trackers, which range from relatively straightforward devices like connected pedometers (the classic Fitbit or Jawbone device) to smartwatches that track steps, heart rate, exercise, and other fitness characteristics. Some of these wearables even have built-in GPS, allowing the user to plan and track routes for running, cycling or hiking in real-time. These devices are frequently used by people that are interested in fitness, either as athletes or simply people who want to improve their health and fitness. They are relatively cheap and readily available on consumer markets.
However, health apps and wearables are beginning to move well beyond the fitness tracker movement. Today’s smartwatches can use the heartrate and movement data they collect to monitor and alert the user to conditions like atrial fibrillation or track the progression of movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease.
Advanced sensors and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity have enabled the development of wearable ECG monitors like the Move ECG, which provide detailed and accurate heart rhythm, used by both athletes and heart patients. Wearable blood pressure monitors, like Omron Heart Guide, also came on the market recently. In the near future, biosensor-based devices, which can monitor everything from respiration to temperature – and undoubtedly more – will be coming onto the market for use in patient treatment and care. In short, the huge and growing fitness tracker user base is only the visible end of the wedge in the health apps and wearables market, which will be growing rapidly over the next few years.
Health apps and wearables don’t just draw on a single user’s health data. Instead, they use data mining and artificial intelligence to analyse the user’s data and interpret the trends. In the fitness tracker model, internal sensors like altimeters and gyroscopes track movement, while an LED-based light sensor monitors heartrate.
This basic data may be displayed on the device itself, but the important part is that the data is passed via Bluetooth to the user’s phone, where an associated app (or multiple apps) analyzes the data to track trends.
However, the story does not end there. Data from the app is passed to a central database, where it is combined and anonymized for deeper insights. More complex analysis, such as cardio health scores or female cycle prediction, is then done using the associated AI-based analysis of anonymized data from the app’s installed userbase. This analysis helps identify trends, make predictions and determine whether a user’s health indicators are within the normal range or if they may suggest a problem.
Right now, the aggregated health data is mainly used for minor predictions, trend tracking and training suggestions. In the near future, though, this analysis is likely to extend much further. There are already experiments ongoing that have turned the data from health apps and wearables to more serious causes.
For example, the Apple Watch’s Heart Rate app will monitor users for signs of atrial fibrillation (or irregular, high or low heart rhythm). Also upcoming is the emergence of patient-generated health data (PGHD) suites, which will track and monitor users’ health indicators alongside their electronic health records and other health data. These tools will make much more intensive use of the back-end data mining practices that are currently in use in fitness trackers, particularly as the technology for health data and biosensor monitoring matures.
The biggest problem with health apps and wearables is the privacy concerns that they raise, especially as it relates to failures to anonymize data adequately or inadvertent public releases of data.
Sometimes these problems seem funny: for example, the early discovery that public sharing of Fitbit data was accidentally giving friends and family insight into user’s intimate lives. Other times, such as when fitness tracking app Strava gave away the location of army bases, it was a little less humorous.
Health app and wearable companies must be stringent about privacy and data security, especially as these apps move into more critical health monitoring areas.
Another problem that is going to be more relevant as health apps and wearables become more embedded in healthcare is the accuracy of both the devices and the analysis. If health apps are going to be used for real-time tracking of crucial health concerns, there is a need for both the wearables and the back-end analysis to be as accurate as possible.
This is an area that needs a lot of focus on development, since accuracy of fitness trackers has not been nearly so crucial.
The combination of data mining on the health app’s back end, coupled with the IoT enabled sensing device actually on the user, is a well-honed tool for collecting, analysing, interpreting and reporting health data by now.
This technology, developed for athletes and fitness enthusiasts, will soon be ready to deploy for people suffering from chronic and acute illnesses. For example, IoT-connected devices can now collect data about a wearer’s physical condition and report it to assist in earlier diagnosis.
The same devices can be used for real-time health monitoring and even critical alerts. This data is valuable for monitoring ongoing health concerns and immediately spotting developing emergencies.
Over time, the cumulative use of AI learning will lead to growing capabilities for health and fitness trackers, making it easier to detect and predict health occurrences.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that wearables (and the huge amounts of data they generate) are on the verge of bringing about a complete transformation in the healthcare industry.
But what about other industries? There are multiple implications for wearables outside healthcare.
Here are just a few applications, some of which are already available and in use:
Manufacturing: assess worker performance, deliver instructions, send customer orders directly to workers.
Transportation and logistics: allocate drivers and trace the fleet.
Travel and tourism: personalize experiences, reduce line wait times, speed up check-in.
Clothing: sensor-embedded garments such as yoga pants that cue alignment.
Retail: send targeted offers to consumers in-store, allow employees to have all info on one device (no longer have to check a computer or go to the back).
Construction: capture and collaborate on job site information, assess job site safety, use Augmented Reality to access work plans on-site and view interactive models, provide alerts during construction.
Oil and gas: equipment maintenance and troubleshooting, detect hazardous gas.
This is only the beginning of how this technology will be used across industries, and embedded into our daily lives, both personal and professional.
How might wearables, and their associated data, be used within your industry? Give us a call, and let’s brainstorm together!