Tecknoworks Blog

The Unstoppable Trend of Wearables for Healthcare (and Other Industries)

Five years ago, wearable technology with health applications was primarily limited to fitness trackers and were niche devices, with shipments of only 30 million sold to sports enthusiasts worldwide. Today, they’re everywhere: an estimate from Statista suggests that as many as 223 million were sold in 2019, and more than 300 million are expected to be sold by 2023. What does this visible trend say about the development of wearables for the healthcare and wearable markets generally?

What are health apps and wearables for healthcare?

Health apps and their associated wearable devices are integrated technologies that can be used to monitor individuals’ health indicators and, in some cases, alert them to problems. Typically, wearables for healthcare consist of Bluetooth-enabled physical monitors that are placed on or even in the body and 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 wearables for healthcare 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 users to plan and track running, cycling, or hiking routes in real-time. These devices are frequently used by people who are interested in fitness, either as athletes or simply people who want to improve their health and fitness. Wearable technology with health applications is relatively cheap and readily available in consumer markets.

However, health apps and wearables are beginning to move well beyond the fitness tracker movement. Today’s smartwatches can use the heart rate 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 rhythms and are used by athletes and heart patients. Wearable blood pressure monitors, like Omron Heart Guide, have also recently come on the market. 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 vast and growing fitness tracker user base is only the visible end of the wedge in the health apps and wearables for the healthcare market, which will be growing over the next few years.

The technology behind wearables for healthcare

Health apps and wearables for healthcare don’t just draw on a single user’s health data. Instead, they use data mining and artificial intelligence to analyze 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 heart rate. 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 user base. 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 currently in fitness trackers, particularly as the technology for health data and biosensor monitoring matures.

Potential problems with wearables

The biggest problem with health apps and wearables is the privacy concerns they raise, especially regarding 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 accidentally gave friends and family insight into users’ intimate lives. Other times, such as when the fitness tracking app Strava gave away the location of army bases, it was a little less humorous. Health apps 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 the accuracy of fitness trackers has not been nearly so crucial.

What’s next for wearable technology with health applications?

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, analyzing, interpreting, and reporting health data. 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 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.

The impact of wearables across industries

It’s not an exaggeration to say that wearables for healthcare (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, and 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, and 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 personal and professional lives. How might wearables and their associated data be used within your industry? Give us a call, and let’s brainstorm together!

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